The good news is that California is poised to pass legislation (SB 1019) that will require furniture labels to declare whether or not the product contains toxic flame retardant chemicals (FRs). Governor Brown is expected to sign the bill by the end of September. The bill was supported by fire fighters (see end note), furniture manufacturers and environmental and health activists. Not surprisingly, the bill was vigorously opposed by companies that manufacture FRs and their proxy, the North American Flame Retardant Alliance. (For details see www.saferchemicals.org, August 14, 2014.)
Many years ago, the most heavily used flame retardant, PBDPEs were phased out due to pressure from health organzations. (Don’t worry about what this and following abbreviations stand for, or consult my book, Healthy Living in a Toxic World, 2nd edition.) These chemicals were replaced by chemicals such as chlorinated organophosphates (so-called “Tris” chemicals), Firemaster 550 (a mixture of FRs) and TBBPA. Most of these replacements are known or suspected to be carcinogenic and/or hormone disruptive. Of course, the manufacturers deny this.
In spite of what I said about abbreviations, I will say a few words about TBBPA. It stands for TetrabromoBisphenol-A. Yes, it is a cousin of the notorious hormone disruptive and carcinogenic, Bisphenol-A, with bromine atoms added to make it into a flame retardant. TBBPA was the most heavily manufactured fire retardant in the world in 2013, with global production over 200,000 tons. It is therefore not surprising that it is detectable in the environment, house dust and in people – distressingly in breast milk and umbilical cord blood. A study of 26 children earlier this year (reported by the Environmental Working Group) found that their body burden of one flame retardant was five times the body burden in their mothers. This is particularly disturbing because small children are more sensitive to chemicals that affect their metabolism and hormones.
You can protect yourself and your family, especially infants, by carefully reading the labels of furniture, bedding, and nappy mats in day-care facilities. At least in California, the labels will have to state whether the product contains a flame retardant chemical, and this will probably apply in other states as well. I don’t know how soon the legislation takes effect, but even when it does, stores are not likely to throw out earlier products. BUYER BEWARE. The only safe thing to do is not buy a product if the label does not say “free of flame retardants,” or a similar disclaimer.
What can a person do with existing furniture, that almost certainly contains flame retardants? At a minimum, I recommend to friends that they check labels on their mattress and child’s bedding, and if not contrary indicated, replace them. Why these? Because we spend many hours each evening in intimate contact with our mattress, with FR vapors arising all around us. Yes, mattresses are expensive, but what is our health worth? Furthermore, I strongly recommend replacing foam pillows, because all polyurethane foam contains flame retardants, and because with our face pressed against the pillow, we will be inhaling FR vapors from the foam (they cannot be smelled). A bad prescription for health! Pillows are cheap – don’t hesitate to replace them if they contain foam padding.
For detailed information on which home products contain or do not contain flame retardants, see the web site of the Center for Environmental Health – www.ceh.org.
End note: Firefighters are exposed to high levels of flame retardants from combustion of furniture. In San Francisco, 40-to-50-year-old female firefighters had six times the rate of breast cancer as the general population.