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How safe are flame retardants?

Consumer Reports magazine: February 2013

Photo: James Wood

Two recent scientific studies provide new evidence that Americans are widely exposed to flame retardants that may pose worrisome health risks and may not even provide much fire protection.

In tests of 102 residential couches purchased in the U.S. from 1985 to 2010, scientists at Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley found that 85 percent of the couches they tested contained flame retardants. Forty-one percent contained chlorinated Tris, a chemical listed as a carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65. An additional 17 percent contained PentaBDE, a globally banned neurotoxin that was phased out in the U.S. in 2005, according to the study published in November in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

People become exposed to those chemicals as the chemicals migrate from the furniture into dust in the home. A related study in the same publication by the Silent Spring Institute, an independent research group, checked for flame retardants in house dust in 16 California homes. The researchers found that most homes had dust concentrations of at least one of the chemicals that exceeded health-risk guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Our study shows that what’s in couches and other products matters because the chemicals get into house dust and then people are exposed to the chemicals at levels of health concern,” says Julia Brody, Ph.D., study author and executive director of the Silent Spring Institute. “When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be.”

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Flame-retardant chemicals have been used to meet a 1975 California flammability standard that requires polyurethane foam in furniture to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds. Though that is a state regulation, the couch-testing results indicate it has become a de facto national standard; 91 percent of tested couches that were purchased outside of California after 2005 contained flame retardants and met California's standard. No label disclosing the presence of the chemicals is required. But adding those chemicals to furniture to meet that state standard may not prevent ignition or reduce the severity of a fire, according to a 2011 study co-authored by fire safety engineer Vytenis Babrauskas, Ph.D., and Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, a federal research center.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a new state standard that would improve fire safety without flame-retardant chemicals. Manufacturers would be required to use upholstery fabric that resists smoldering cigarettes, the leading cause of furniture fires.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2008 proposed a similar draft standard that it estimated could already be met by 85 percent of upholstered furniture currently on the market, without the use of chemical flame retardants.

   

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