A parent’s dilemma: do flame retardants in home goods trade in one danger for another?

BY Cat Wise  January 1, 2014 at 6:40 PM EST

What could be so dangerous about this furry little guy? Some children’s products like this have been treated with flame retardant chemicals that make them harder to burn, but may be harmful for humans. Photos by Cat Wise

Like many families at this time of year, my husband and I were up late one recent night packing up diapers, bottles, toys, clothes and all the necessary “kid gear” for a long road trip with our two sons to visit my parents. One thing I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget was a soft headrest for my four-year-old. It’s shaped like a little dog and he loves it. As I pulled it out of the drawer, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before, a tag that read: “This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin CA 117. Care should be exercised near open flame or burning cigarettes.”

I hesitated … should I put this well worn pillow back in the car?

As I’ve learned over several months of reporting, Technical Bulletin 117 — also known as TB117 — is the California regulation that was put in place in the mid 1970s that required upholstered furniture, which is highly flammable, to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds. It was a well intentioned regulation to prevent house fires and save lives. But the consequences of TB117, nearly forty years later, have been the subject of a big debate here in California, and some now say that the rule has done more harm than good.

That’s because in order to pass the 12-second flame test, many manufacturers added chemical flame retardants to the foam inside household products like couches and upholstered chairs, and children’s products like changing pads, nursing pillows, car seats and nap mats. And there is a growing, though still relatively small, body of scientific research that suggests chemicals in some flame retardants may be harmful for humans.

One of the top scientists looking at flame retardants and human health is University of California Berkeley epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi. She and her colleagues have linked flame retardants to fertility problems, lower birth weights, and lower cognition and attention in school age children. Most of her research has been done on a class of flame retardants called PBDE’s which were widely used in furnishings and electronics until 2005, but have been phased out in recent years by manufacturers. Eskenzi says she will soon start studying flame retardants currently being used in household products. “We know virtually nothing about the flame retardants that have been used more recently except in animal studies,” she said.

So how do flame retardants end up in our bodies? Arlene Blum from the Green Science Policy Institute explained the process during an interview for the PBS NewsHour broadcast which aired Wednesday. She says the chemicals are constantly coming out of the upholstered furniture as dust particles. “And then you get some dust on your hand, eat a French fry, and they end up in your body.” She added that the chemicals are so heavy they fall to the ground where toddlers tend to crawl and then put their hands in their mouths.

The chemicals from flame retardants used in furniture enter the atmosphere as dust that could settle in your home.

With all this in mind, I decided to have a few furnishings from our home tested: a diaper changing pad I bought in 2009 on Craigslist, a couch from Scandinavian Designs (pictured above) we purchased in 2004, and an Ikea chair we got in 2009 that we keep in the nursery. In order to get a small foam sample from our couch, we had to turn it upside down and cut open a panel along the bottom. It was much easier to snip some foam from the changing pad and chair cushion. I sent the samples to Graham Peaslee, a Professor of Chemistry at Hope College in Michigan who collaborates with Arlene Blum and her team. After several weeks, he sent me back the results:

The chair in my son’s nursery and our couch contain a flame retardant called chlorinated Tris and PDBE’s were found in the diaper changing pad. In an email, Professor Peaslee wrote that we have flame retardant chemicals present in the 2 to 5 percent range by weight in our foam samples. “This is very typical of commercial flame retardants added to polyurethane foams,” he wrote. To put that in some context, Peaslee found that our couch cushion foam contains 5 percent chlorinated Tris, which means that we could have about a pound of the chemical in our sofa. The result from our sofa is consistent with a recent study that came out by researchers at Duke University.

I had anticipated there would be flame retardants in some of the things I sent in — after all, manufacturers have been required to to meet flammability standards for decades and many have done this by adding these flame retardant chemicals. But I was still a bit taken back by the results.

The flame retardant found in our couch and chair, chlorinated Tris, was banned in baby pajamas in 1977 due to health concerns and it was recently listed as a cancer-causing agent by the State of California. It is being phased out of some foam products, but it has been widely used in furniture foam for years, and it remains in many older furnishings like ours. And the flame retardant in our changing pad has been shown by Eskenazi and others to have potential health impacts, especially worrisome for children.

But does the mere presence of these chemicals in our home mean we should panic and throw everything out? Tom Osimitz, a toxicologist who chairs the scientific advisory committee of the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, which represents the chemical manufacturers, would caution against that. I spoke with Osimitz recently about flame retardants and health concerns during an interview for the NewsHour. Osimitz points out that chemical flame retardants provide an important fire safety benefit in products, and he says it’s important to remember that exposure to a chemical, doesn’t necessarily mean risk.

“I think if you look at the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, which measures chemicals on a routine basis in blood,” said Osimitz. “They’ll point out quickly too that the mere presence of a chemical does not necessarily lead to you to conclude that there’s an adverse effect, or even that it could eventually cause an adverse effect, so one has to be very careful looking at that, generally speaking.”

And Osimitz says that the flame retardants being used today are safer than the ones in the past and that it’s important not to group all of these chemicals together. “There are two or three classic chemicals in the past that may have had some issues, but as everything gets better, and there’s continuous improvement in chemical design — design with reduced toxicity, increased biodegradation. Those are things that have been happening over the last decade.”

Still, now that I know what is lurking in some of the products in our home, I do wonder if I should I be concerned about my family’s exposure to those chemicals, or be grateful that the chair, couch and changing pad might resist ignition if a fire breaks out. This is a dilemma that may confront others as we gain a better understanding of flame retardants and our daily exposures to them. But for now, I’ve decided to keep the beloved dog pillow hidden away.

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