Melissa Wolfe and her son
Melissa Wolfe and her son

(WOMENSENEWS)–Since two of her children were born with special needs that may be linked to environmental pollution, Melissa Wolfe has worried about flame retardants in her home.

Today’s release of two studies in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicate that these chemicals are prevalent in couch upholstery and dust, and raise Wolfe’s level of concern.

“One of my sons is a thumb sucker, and this news makes me even more nervous about what he is putting in his mouth,” says Wolfe, who lives in Brentwood, N.H., and is a board member of the New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Association.

Flame retardants are known carcinogens that previous studies have found in human breast milk and in the bloodstreams of young children. In pregnant mothers, they can cause thyroid problems, while in developing children, they can cause neurological difficulties and endocrine problems.

In response to today’s findings, health advocates say they will step up their lobbying for the Safe Chemicals Act, which would require stricter pre-market testing of all synthetic chemicals for the first time since federal regulations were last revamped in 1978.

“We need new laws that weigh the benefits of chemicals against their potential harms,” says Sonya Lunder of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.

In California, activists say they will continue to press Gov. Jerry Brown to make good on his June 2012 promise to reform the state’s rigorous furniture flammability standards, which are responsible for spiking the current use of flame retardants nationwide. State standards could be revised by the summer of 2013.

Current California regulations require upholstery fabric to be resistant to candle flames for 12 seconds before igniting. Brown’s proposal is modeled on new flammability standards that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) drafted in 2008. These test whether upholstery ignites when exposed not to candle flames but to cigarette flames, which actually cause more fires. But new CPSC regulations have been slow to implement, and likely won’t be in force until 2014.

Furniture makers including IKEA, based in Delft in the Netherlands, have expressed a willingness to remove harmful chemicals from their products, but flame-retardant industry lobbyists have spent $23 million over the past five years to thwart stricter standards in the state of California alone, reports the journal Environmental Health News.

Chemicals in Couches and Dust

A joint study by the University of California, Berkeley and Duke University has found that flame retardants associated with health problems are in the vast majority of couches tested.

Researchers behind the study found 85 percent of couches tested were treated with flame retardants. Of the 102 sofas examined, 41 percent contained chlorinated Tris (or TDCPP), a carcinogen that was removed from baby pajamas in the 1970s. Another 17 percent of couches contained pentaBDE, a flame retardant associated with endocrine problems and one of only 21 chemicals that have been banned worldwide.

A second study by the Silent Spring Institute, based in Newton, Mass., found that once these chemicals migrate out of furniture foam and into house dust, they remain present in that dust (which can be ingested by pets and small children) at levels higher than allowed by U.S. federal health guidelines.

“Our colleagues’ work fits with ours because over time, these chemicals move from couches to dust to hands to mouths and then into bodies,” says Arlene Blum, the co-author of the sofa study, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, based in Berkeley, Calif.

The Silent Spring study tested for 49 flame retardants in dust and detected 44 of them. Thirty-six of these chemicals were present in at least 50 percent of the samples, sometimes above permitted levels of 0.01 percent of a nanogram per gram.

“This was the largest study ever done on flame retardants in household dust, and we were alarmed by its findings,” says the lead author of the Silent Spring study, Robin Dodson.

The halogenated flame retardants (those containing bromine and chlorine) under scrutiny today are also found in electronics, carpet padding, textiles, infants’ changing pads, nursing pillows, car seats, carriers and strollers.

California Connection

Both studies focus on the problem of flame retardants in California, where dry conditions make fire especially prevalent and where authorities in 1975 approved Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, which requires polyurethane foam in furniture sold in the state to withstand a 12-second open flame test.

The Silent Spring team tested dust in California homes, mostly in the Bay area.

The UC Berkeley-Duke study, which examined couches sold inside and outside California, noted that 94 percent of couches purchased outside the state since 2005 contained flame retardants. This indicates that TB117, controversial since its passage and long a target of reform, has in essence become the national standard.

TB117’s standards can only be met by adding large quantities of chemical flame retardants, about 5 to 10 percent of the weight of furniture’s foam, during manufacturing. About 80 percent of the home furniture sold in the United States now complies with this standard.

Critics argue that the California law puts consumers’ health at risk while doing little to stop the spread of fires. “Fabric covers on furniture are not required to be flame resistant and since the fabric lights up, this makes the standard for the foam underneath it ineffective,” says the Green Science Policy Institute’s Blum.

Critics say TB117’s over stringency is putting peoples’ health at risk.

On Nov. 15, a separate team of UC Berkeley researchers published a study that measured blood levels of pentaPBDE in nearly 300 pregnant mothers and later tested levels in their children. Scientists found that if mothers had pentaPBDE in their bodies, it not only boosted their thyroid hormone levels, but raised the risk of lower IQ and birth weight in their children.

Previous studies have shown that pentaPBDE can impair women’s fertility and that toddlers, who clamber on household surfaces as they learn to walk, have three times more of this chemical in their bodies than their mothers.

Chemicals Remain

Though pentaPBDE was banned from the United States in 2004, it is still present in products made before then and is in the blood of 97 percent of U.S. residents, with people in California having twice the average level found nationally.

The three major manufacturers of flame retardants have agreed to phase out production of decaBDE, also implicated in health problems, in 2013. Those manufacturers are Albemarle, Baton Rouge, La., Chemtura, Middlebury, Conn., and ICL Industrial Projects, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Though new chemicals are being developed to take the old ones’ place, critics say these, too, are of dubious safety. Consider Firemaster 550, a bromide mix used in upholstery to replace pentaPBDE. When Silent Spring researchers took their first dust samples in California homes in 2006, they found relatively low levels of Firemaster 550.

“When we did our second round of testing in 2011, its levels were much higher,” says Dodson. “And like pentaPBDE before it, this replacement was never thoroughly tested from a health standpoint before it was brought to market.”

Health advocates urge people to take these safety steps: seal tears in upholstered furniture; vacuum and damp mop regularly; select furniture and carpeting made of naturally flame retardant materials such as wool, cotton and hemp; and wash hands frequently.

Like other grassroots activists concerned about environmental contaminants, Wolfe says she will do everything she can to raise awareness about today’s studies.

“Now that this research is out, I’ll make even more of an effort to reach out to colleagues, neighbors and other parents,” says Wolfe, who has written about the dangers of flame retardants in her local newspaper. “We need to do our best to protect our children and make sure we’re all safe in our own homes.”

Molly M. Ginty ( is an award-winning reporter who covers the environment and health for Women’s eNews.

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