Given the outdated regulations in place about the use of flame-retardant chemicals in consumer products, it’s quite difficult to avoid these toxic chemicals because of their abundant use in household goods and even in the foam insulation used in your walls. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.4 The samples came from more than 100 couches purchased from 1985 to 2010.As of July 1, 2007, all US mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch. This means that the manufacturers are dousing them with highly toxic flame-retardant chemicals, which do NOT have to be disclosed in any way. This is probably the most important piece of furniture you want to get right, as you are spending about one-third of your life on it.However, you can have a licensed health care provider write you a prescription for a chemical-free mattress, which can then be ordered without flame retardants from certain retailers. You can also find certain natural mattresses on the market that don’t contain them. For instance, our wool mattress does not have flame-retardant chemicals added because wool is a natural flame retardant.
Good News! Safer Furniture May Be Coming in 2014
Given the blatant dangers posed by flame retardants, in late November 2013 California’s governor ordered that TB117 be rewritten to ensure fire safety without the use of these chemicals. Starting in January 2014, furniture manufacturers will begin producing furniture that’s not required to use flame-retardant chemicals, and full compliance is expected by January 2015.Unfortunately, the updated law only states that the chemicals are no longer required; it doesn’t ban them outright. This means that some companies may continue to use them, and if you’re in the market for new furniture, you’ll need to ask for that madewithout flame-retardant chemicals.
Tips for Reducing Your Exposure to Flame-Retardant Chemicals
Even with California’s revised law, these chemicals are still widely used. Plus, unless you’ve revamped your home using only natural, chemical-free materials, they’re likely lurking in your home right now. Until these chemicals are removed from use entirely, tips you can use to reduce your exposure around your home include:5
- Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, as these are most likely to contain flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself, as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
- Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
- You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges, and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
- As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
- Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, mattresses, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool, or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free."
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.