THE DETAILS: The researchers collected foam samples from 26 different pieces of furniture purchased in the United States between 2003 and 2009, ranging from pillows and baby strollers to couches and mattress pads. Their goal was to figure out which chemicals were being used to replace the now-banned chemical penta-brominated diphenyl ether, which was voluntarily eliminated from products in 2004 due to concerns over its contribution to thyroid problems, low birth weights, and reproductive abnormalities. In 15 of the foam samples, they detected tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP), a chemical that had been removed from children's pajamas in the late 1970s because it was found to affect DNA in such a way that could lead to cancer and other problems. Another four samples were treated with a related chemical called tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TCPP), and one sample contained compounds used in a new product called Firemaster 550, about which there is no available health data. One sample of foam collected from a couch was 5 percent flame retardants by weight, which means that 5 percent of all the stuffing used in that couch wasn't foam, but flame-retardant material.
A second part of the study, conducted in Boston, included collecting household dust from 50 houses and testing it for levels of TDCPP, TCPP, and one of the components of Firemaster 550. TDCPP and the Firemaster 550 chemical were detected in 96 percent of the dust samples. The chemicals wind up in dust as the foam in upholstered furniture breaks down with age.
WHAT IT MEANS: You may be sitting on a couch full of chemicals that could cause a serious health threat, or that haven't undergone adequate safety testing. "I do think that it's astonishing that something that was used in kids' pajamas and was taken out 30 years ago is now being used in furniture, and even baby furniture," says Thomas Webster, PhD, associate professor and associate chair in the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health and one of the study's authors. And, there's not even a federal law that requires furniture manufacturers to include these chemicals in their products—just a law in California that requires both adult and baby furniture to resist smoldering cigarettes and open flames.
And while making things fire-resistant may sound like a good idea, these flame-retardant chemicals don't have much of a track record. "We don't have good information on safety or on what works and what doesn't," says Bob Leudeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, a trade group representing foam manufacturers. Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and another study author, points to research that's found very little change in the number of house fires from before 1980, when flame retardant chemicals were rare, to today. Plus, "these chemicals only provide a few seconds of protection," says Blum. That's because they're only added to the foam in the furniture, not the fabric, which can itself be highly flammable. A better approach to improving fire safety would be laws mandating fire-safe self-extinguishing cigarettes, since smoking paraphernalia are the cause of most house fires, says Leudeka. And, he adds, combining those with barrier fabrics like those used in mattresses would improve safety even further. Mattresses are subject to federal flammability guidelines, and rather than relying on chemicals, most mattress manufacturers have switched to non-chemically treated barrier fabrics (although there are still problems with some of these materials, such as that they can emit formaldehyde as they age).
There is good news, though. Despite the fact that some manufacturers, such as Norwalk and Ikea, have started making all their upholstered furniture compliant with the California law, others are doing the exact opposite because of the public's growing concern over these flame-retardant chemicals. Only 20 percent of the furniture sold in the U.S. complies with the California standard, says Blum. "We are selling comfort," says Leudeka. "We want people to be comfortable with our product, not just physically, but mentally, as well."
Here's how to avoid chemically coated couches, along with tips from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) on how to make your home fire-safe:
• Complain. Tell furniture manufacturers that you want furniture free of chemicals that aren't tested for safety or efficacy. When you shop, express your concern to the retailer, and look for furniture that doesn't comply with the California standard. If it does, the tag will read something along the lines of "complies with California Technical Bulletin 117".
• Change your batteries. If you didn't change or check your smoke-detector batteries at the end of daylight savings time—a good cue to remember to do it—do so now. According to the NFPA, almost two-thirds of reported home-fire deaths from 2003 to 2006 resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
• Watch the heaters. With winter around the corner, you may be pulling out your space heaters and cranking up the furnace. From 2003 to 2006, the leading cause of home fires, at 28 percent, was heating equipment situated too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses, or bedding. Keep all items at least three feet away from a heat source.
• Stay close to the oven. Kitchen fires accounted for four out of 10 fires in that same time period, with Thanksgiving being the day that the greatest number of those fires occurred. Keep towels, potholders, and other flammable fabrics away from burners, and keep an eye on your cooking to prevent fats or oils from spilling over and catching fire. Use a timer if you're worried that a busy household could keep you away from the stove for too long.