Toxic Couches 

Flame retardants on the rise in furniture, study finds.

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PentaBDE and other brominated flame retardants known as PBDEs have been linked in some studies of people and animals to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones. Most recently, a study published this month found that prenatal and childhood exposures were linked to disabilities in attention, coordination and cognition in a cohort of school-age children.

By December, the last PBDE mixture in consumer products, DecaBDE, is scheduled for phase-out, but PBDEs will linger in older couches and in people. "Given their environmental, and biological persistence, they are likely to join the legacy POPs [persistent organic pollutants], like PCBs and DDT, in being with us for the foreseeable future," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program.

Flame retardants are semi-volatile and do not stay in cushions. Toddlers and young children who crawl on the floor are highly exposed through dust. Research from Stapleton's lab has linked levels of PentaBDEs on toddlers’ hands to the blood levels in their bodies. Birnbaum said dust tainted by the couches and other household items is “a major route of exposure to people."

Low-income families face disparately high residential exposures to the banned compounds PBDEs compared to newer flame retardants. That's due to the presence of older, deteriorated or poorly manufactured furniture treated with PBDEs. "Low-income families may keep their furniture for longer, prolonging exposure to phased-out chemicals," Quirós-Alcalá said.

Concentrations of the chemicals in couches averaged 4 to 5 percent by weight, but some couches had over 11 percent. Ironically, these levels of flame retardants may not stop a house fire. "There is growing evidence that at the concentrations used in products, they are not protective against fires," Birnbaum said.

California is currently debating a new standard that would reduce the use of flame retardants in furniture. Consumers hoping to avoid flame retardant-laced furniture are often left in the dark. Furniture manufacturers are often unable to say if their products contain flame retardants because foam padding comes from a vendor, who in turn buys chemicals used to treat it from yet another vendor. Precise information is often protected under law as proprietary.

A couch with a California TB 117 label indicates the presence of flame retardants, but a couch without such a label doesn't mean there are no flame retardants, the scientists found. Of couches without a label, 57 percent contained them.

"Consumers should be aware of what types of chemicals are replacing PBDEs so they can make informed choices when purchasing couches and other furniture," Patisaul said. "The free market system is a fundamental economic and philosophical pillar of our society that is usurped when consumers cannot effectively evaluate the chemical composition of what they are purchasing."

This report was produced by Environmental Health News.

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