THE DANGER OF FLAME RETARDANTS IN OUR HOMES
I'm so excited to share this information with you, and I hope these findings empower us all to make our home a safer place, where possible. This can seem overwhelming, but I believe information is empowering -- and baby steps are a great way to make changes! It's important we minimize chemicals in our food and home products, as well as in the furniture in our homes. Flame retardants are highly toxic chemicals that impact our health, and it is within our power to adjust what is in our homes.
HISTORY OF REGULATION: TB 117
A 1970s California regulation led to the injection of chemicals into home furniture, and the law came from a distortion of scientific findings that suggested flame retardants would be more effective at reducing sofa fires than they really are.
Research shows though that flame retardants provide no meaningful protection, a finding uncovered in a 2012 investigative series by The Chicago Tribune and highlighted in a recent documentary Toxic Hot Seat. My husband is a fire fighter and had a coworker that was involved in that documentary. That is where our journey began in researching flame retardants and slowly but surely making changes in our home.
What is TB 117?
TB 117 was enacted in California in 1975, and the furniture companies across the nation followed suit -- so that they could be compliant with the California law. The regulations resulted in the development of a residential upholstered furniture flammability standard entitled Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). This mandatory performance standard requires that the concealed filling materials of upholstered furniture undergo individual component testing to ensure that they pass open flame and cigarette smolder tests. Read more here.
"In the United States, a major driver of flame retardant (FR) use in residential furniture appears to be the California flammability standard, Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). This standard required that polyurethane foam used in furniture withstand a 12 second open flame test with minimal loss of foam and no sustained ignition after the flame is removed. TB 117 was instituted in 1975 primarily to protect against home fires started by small open flames, such as candles, matches, and lighters." -- Environmental Science and Technology
In 2012, the California governor directed the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) to revise TB 117 for better fire safety without the need for flame retardant chemicals.
On Feb 8, 2013, the Bureau announced a replacement standard, TB 117-2013, took effect January 1, 2014 and became mandatory for new furniture manufactured after January 1, 2015.
Facts regarding the flame retardants added to furniture foam to meet TB 117
They do not prevent ignition – the cover fabric will catch on fire whether or not the foam contains flame retardants. This is so important. This means they are not effective at the job that the prior mandates claimed they did.
They do not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time – normal furniture and TB 117-compliant furniture burn similarly from this study from Fire Safety Science.
The flame retardants commercially used to meet TB 117 have been found to have negative impacts upon human, animal, and environmental health and notably, the TB 117 standard has not been shown to have a measurable fire safety benefit.
After decades of use and hundreds of studies detecting adverse health and environmental consequences, two polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) commercial mixtures—PentaBDE and OctaBDE— were banned in 2003 in California and in 2004 in the European Union and voluntarily withdrawn from production by the sole US manufacturer.
These two PBDE mixtures were subsequently listed as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) by the Stockholm Convention. The cause for concern with these and other PBDEs, their replacements, and other currently used halogenated replacement chemicals is now well recognized.
In the United States, only chemicals in foods, drugs, and pesticides are regulated prior to reaching the marketplace. Meaning there is no requirement for health data nor sufficient authority to regulate other chemicals. When a number of halogenated flame retardants received detailed study, they were found to be persistent when introduced into the environment and to have serious adverse health consequences.
Conclusion: Since 1975, hundreds of millions of kilograms of pentaBDE (and its replacements which include TDCPP and Firemaster 500) have been used to meet California TB117. A fire safety benefit has not been established. The harms to health have been established.
According to the Green Science Policy Institute, the following flame retardants are found in couches:
TDCPP (chlorinated Tris), listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011
PentaBDE (pentabrominated diphenyl ether) globally banned due to toxicity and environmental persistence
Firemaster 550, associated with obesity and anxiety
The amount of flame retardants in a typical American home isn't measured in parts per billion or parts per million. It's measured in ounces and pounds. A large couch can have up to 2 pounds in its foam cushions. The chemicals also are in some highchairs, diaper-changing pads and breast-feeding pillows. Recyclers turn chemically treated foam into the padding underneath carpets.
These flame retardant chemicals are linked to numerous health and environmental problems. The Green Science Policy Institute's interdisciplinary peer-reviewed paper examines the major uses and known toxic effects of commonly-used halogenated flame retardants and their by-products.
They discovered that commonly used flame retardants are associated with:
adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function
enter the environment through multiple pathways
are global contaminants.
are persistent in the environment and do not break down into safer chemicals
tend to bioaccumulate, or build up in people and animals
make disposal or recycling of products to which they are added more difficult
create toxic, carcinogenic byproducts if burned
According to EWG, chemical pollutants build up in the indoor air we breathe and is released from things like building products, foam furnishings, carpet and paint. It's important to be aware of toxins in your furniture, as well as other areas of your home. The EWG Glossary is helpful to understand chemicals found in the home. Looking at those lists above, it's hard to believe that these chemicals were even allowed to be in our homes. The documentary (linked above) goes into more details on the history of it all.
Also of note: PBDEs from home products settle in household dust, posing a particular hazard to children. Although manufacturers started to phase out PBDEs in 2006, the replacement chemicals have similarly troubling health effects. Check with retailers and manufacturers about the use of flame retardant chemicals before purchasing any furniture, mattresses or curtains, as well as any children’s products that contain foam. The EWG Homeguide has tips to minimize breathing in chemicals in your home.
IMPACT ON ENVIRONMENT
From the EWG: "Because of their persistence, halogenated flame retardants have become distributed around the globe and are found at remote places where they have never been used. Furthermore, even if they are banned and no longer manufactured, chemicals already released to the environment continue to persist and spread. Though a majority of PBDEs were manufactured and used in North America, a 2013 study found PBDEs in tree bark at far-flung locations in Nepal and Tasmania, almost 10 years after their phase-out. Because of the usage of pentaBDE in North America to comply with TB117, the levels found in wildlife are increasing in a variety of species of fish, birds, and marine mammals as well as humans."
WHAT TO DO NEXT
How to check your current furniture?
If your furniture was made before 2015, it likely is compliant with TB 117 and DOES have these flame retardants in it. We had to look at the tags underneath our furniture and that's where we found the label that said TB 117 compliant.
This is a great guide for where to shop that offers options for flame retardant free furniture. It includes what to look out for and stores to shop at. I noticed IKEA isn't mentioned, but they DO offer some furniture that is flame retardant free. While the original TB-117 law was changed, there is still furniture out there that is TB-117 compliant, so it's important to understand what is in your furniture and in the air you are breathing in your home.
The process to update furniture without flame retardants can take time and research. Give yourself grace and time, and it's okay to do it at the pace that works for your family. Over the past few years we have updated our chairs and mattresses. Our last item to replace is our couch, which we will be doing after we build our home this year.
Lastly, I am by no means an expert on this! I have simply done some reading over the years and become familiar with the risks associated with flame retardants and TB 117. I have updated our home with safer furniture (mostly --- it's a process!) and we will be taking many of these chemicals (as well as others) into consideration when we build a new home.
Since there are flame retardants in fire fighter clothes, my husband and I want to take extra steps to remove chemicals when possible from our homes. There are so many layers to removing toxins, and this is simply one of them. I hope you find this information empowering and helpful, friends. And if you know any fire fighters, feel free to pass this information along to them since they have extra exposure to these dangerous chemicals.