Replacing an old sofa with a new one free of flame retardants reduces harmful exposures in the home
A new study shows that when people replace their old sofa with a new one that does not contain added flame retardants, the levels of harmful chemicals in household dust drop dramatically. Also, replacing the foam inside the sofa cushions is equally effective. The results confirm that choosing healthier furniture without flame retardants can make a huge difference in people – especially children – daily exposure to these toxic chemicals.
We have long suspected sofas are a major source of toxic chemicals in the dust. Now, for the first time, we have evidence of the positive effects of replacing old furniture with flame retardants, says lead author Catherine Rodgers, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute.
The results appear in the journal International environment.
Flame retardants can transfer from furniture to air and dust and end up in people’s bodies. Exposure to chemicals has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, lower IQ, and other adverse health effects. Babies and young children are especially at risk because they crawl and play on the floor, where polluted dust settles, and they often put their hands in their mouths.
Until recently, the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture across the United States and Canada was driven by the California Flammability Standard called TB117. Amid public outcry over the toxicity of these chemicals and their lack of fire safety features, California updated TB117 to a new standard called TB117-2013. The new standard is designed to stop burning fires in furniture fabric before they reach the flammable foam inside, eliminating the need to add flame retardants to the foam. It went into effect in 2014 and allows manufacturers to make furniture without flame retardants.
To assess the impact of the new standard, Rodgers collaborated with researchers at the University of California, Davis. Environmental Working Group; California Department of Toxic Substance Control; And the Green Science Policy Institute. Researchers recruited participants from 33 northern California homes who were willing to replace their old furniture with non-flame retardant options. About two-thirds of the participants replaced the fully upholstered sofa. The rest replaced sofa foam.
The team collected dust samples from each home before the exchange, and then several times after that over the course of 18 months. Flame retardant concentrations decreased significantly after the first six months, and most remained lower one year after the furniture was replaced. The same drops have also been seen in homes that have only replaced foam.
Of the seven types of flame retardants that researchers have tested in dust, two in particular – PBDEs and TPHP – dropped the most. Rodgers says the drop in PBDE levels wasn’t unexpected due to its widespread use in furniture that meets old standards. The researchers also observed a decrease in a group of chlorinated flame retardants called OPFRs. However, the declines were not likely to be sustainable over time because chemicals are used in other products including textiles, plastics, adhesives, and rubber.
Conforms to standard specifications
“For decades, our residents have been unnecessarily exposed to harmful flame retardants from their furniture as a result of an outdated flammable standard that provided no fire safety benefit,” says co-author Arlene Blume, Executive Director of the Green Science Institute. This study confirms that the new standard reduces exposure to toxic flame retardants in our homes. This is a win-win for public health as well as fire safety. ”
Starting June 25, under a new federal bill recently signed into law, all upholstered furniture that is imported or sold in the United States will have to comply with California’s TB117-2013 Flammability Standard for Upholstered Furniture.
“With the new national flammability standard, manufacturers are now assured that they can continue to make fire-safe furniture without the need for toxic flame retardants,” says Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishing Alliance. “This is good for our business, and most importantly, for the health of our workers and the public.”
Despite recent successes in removing flame retardants from furniture, the global market for flame retardants continues to grow as chemicals are increasingly used in other types of consumer products. “The results of the new study should motivate state and federal policymakers to reduce the harmful and ineffective uses of flame retardants in other items such as TV boxes and building insulation,” says Blume.
What can consumers do?
Since furniture can last a long time, many homes still have furniture that meets old standards and has flame retardants. “Replacing old furniture can be expensive and it may not be an option for everyone,” says Rodgers. “The good news is that our study shows that replacing sofa foam can be just as effective.” People can replace the foam on their couch by contacting a local foam supplier and ordering new foam that does not contain added flame retardants.
It’s also important to keep dust levels low, Rodgers says, because chemicals like to be in the dust. She recommends vacuuming with a robotic brush and HEPA filter and wiping the surfaces with a damp cloth or squeegee. She says repairing cracks in the furniture fabric to make sure the foam isn’t exposed and washing hands regularly is also important.
For more tips on keeping harmful chemicals out of the home, download Silent Spring’s Detox Me app.
Funding for this project was provided by Healthy Babies Bright Futures; JPB Corporation US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA-G2013-STAR-K1); UC Davis Superfund Research Center, National Institutes of Health, NIEHS Award (P42-ES004699); UC Davis Environmental Health Center, NIEHS Award (P30ES023513); And a charitable donation to the Silent Spring Institute.
Rodgers, KM, D Bennett, R Moran, K Knox, T Stoiber, R Gill, TM Young, A Blum, RE Dodson. 2021. Do the concentrations of flame retardants change in dust after replacing old upholstered furniture? International environment. DOI: 10.1016 / j.envint.2021.106513
About Silent Spring Institute:
Silent Spring Institute, located in Newton, Massachusetts, is the leading scientific research organization dedicated to uncovering the link between chemicals in our everyday environments and women’s health, with a focus on prevention. Founded in 1994, the institute develops innovative tools to accelerate the transition to safer chemicals, while translating its science into policies that protect health. Visit us at http: // www.
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