You shouldn't need a science degree or private investigator's training to figure out what chemicals are in the products you buy. But try and find a couch that isn't made with chemical flame retardants, and you might feel the need for such skills--not that they'd necessarily help.
The furniture industry has been one of the slowest to respond to the greener products trend, and despite the fact that large companies, like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, are selling sofas with organic cotton upholstery or certified-well-managed hardwood frames, the foam cores are still likely to be treated with harmful flame retardants in order to comply with a California law requiring that all furniture sold in the state be able to resist open flames. Chemical flame retardants are increasingly being linked to learning problems, infertility, and even cancer.
But what exactly are those chemicals? No one seems to know. During the 80s and 90s, furniture was treated with a class of chemicals called polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs). By now, after being linked to a variety of health disorders, including thyroid and behavioral problems, penta-BDE, the most common PBDE used in the polyurethane foam found in sofas, has been phased out. Good news, right? Not exactly. Furniture manufacturers still had to comply with California law, so they replaced penta-BDE with a cocktail of other chemicals, whose identity, in many cases, is unknown even to the companies selling the furniture.
Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, has been trying to figure out what fire retardants, exactly, these companies are using--for which one needs samples of the foam to test in a lab. "Often, furniture companies are asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, saying they won't test the foam to see what's being used," Stapleton says. It's disconcerting, to say the least.
Stapleton's tests have revealed that quite a few companies are using a chemical called tris, which was linked to cancer as far back as 1978 and, she says, acts like a pesticide when it enters the body. A March, 2010 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal published by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, found that tris impairs a man's sperm quality, possibly leading to infertility. Stapleton's tests found tris being used in furniture and pillows made by Ikea, which was hailed as a responsible company for being one of the first to eliminate PBDEs from its product line. The chemical was also found in IKEA mattresses, says Arlene Blum,Ph.D, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
If companies aren't using tris, Stapleton's tests have found that they're likely to be using a trademarked mixture of chemicals called Firemaster 550, which has never been tested for safety. Like PBDEs, Firemaster 550 contains bromine, which means it has the potential to build up in people and in the environment. It has been found in house dust, raising concerns about exposure expressed in this report.
It's rare that a piece of furniture would be labeled with the type of chemicals used to make it flame resistant, but there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:
-If you can afford one, buy a sofa made from organic cotton, latex, and wool. Companies such as Q Collection, Dalla Terra, and If Green make furniture (usually starting around $5,000) without hazardous chemicals of any sort and are a safe bet. See GreenerPenny's list of natural, chemical-free mattresses.
-Buy local. Unless you live in California, there's no law requiring that furniture be open-flame resistant, so you can try to find a local craftsman that can tell you exactly what chemicals are, or aren't, in the furniture he or she is making.
-Avoid products that meet California Technical Bulletin 117. While you may have no other choice but to buy a flame-retardant sofa adhering to California standards, you don't have to buy flame-retardant nursing pillows, throw pillows, baby strollers, chair pads, mattresses, or any of the hundreds of other products made with flame-resistant polyurethane foam. If you see a hang tag on a product that says "Complies with California TB117," put it down! Look for another alternative made from cotton, wool, or other natural materials.
-Check your fire alarm. While it may feel reassuring to buy flame resistant furniture, the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes that just 100 deaths and 118 injuries are caused by furniture fires every year. In most cases, those are associated with improperly extinguished cigarettes. Change the batteries in your fire alarms every six months and keep cigarettes out of your house. That will protect you much longer than toxic furniture!
For more information:
Tris was used as a flame retardant in sleepwear until health concerns arose. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/201/4360/1020
Tris was found to enter the human body through exposure to flame retardants. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/211/4485/951
Firefighter organizations have expressed concern about occupational exposures to toxic fire retardant chemicals. http://www.bfrl.nist.gov/info/conf/fireretardants/3-Webster.pdf
by Emily Main
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