Is your sofa bad for your health? A host of scientists and advocacy groups say the answer may be yes -- and some government officials may slowly be agreeing with them.
The problem lies with fire-retardant chemicals in foam sofa cushions. In the 1970s concerns over house fires, some sparked by lit cigarettes on furniture, prompted a move to create more fire-retardant furniture. California adopted the most stringent regulation, and so instead of making pieces specifically for the California market, many furniture makers used the California law as their base for anything sold in America. And that meant adding fire-retardant chemicals to foam furniture cushions.
Tests have shown that these chemicals can potentially harm people, especially in dust emanating from the furniture.
- 42 pieces of children's furniture were tested
- 38 of those contained possibly toxic chemicals
- TB117 tags on furniture signify compliance with the California regulations
But activists -- and parents -- are taking hope from new California regulations, passed just a few weeks ago, that create a new standard and reduces the need for chemicals. Starting Jan. 1, 2014, furniture will only need to withstand smoldering cigarettes or electronics, not an open flame -- a change that will significantly reduce chemicals in cushion foam. Already the state Department of Consumer Affairs expects to see a change in the next six months, according to the Los Angeles Times.
How high is our furniture's chemical dependency?
The advocacy group, Center for Environmental Health, released a study of foam furniture for children in November, based on the findings of a Duke University researcher. They found four main fire hazard chemicals, including:
- TDCPP, or chlorinated Tris, and Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate, both cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having serious health concerns linked to infertility and changes in hormones and women's menstrual cycles.
- Firemaster 550, which caused obesity and "disrupted normal hormone function" in lab animals and cells.
- TCPP, which changed menstrual cycles in mice.
Of course, the problem with the last two chemicals is that they have been tested in mice, but not people -- so the potential impact is not fully understood.
Prof. Julie Herbstman, of Columbia University's Department of Environmental Health Sciences, says part of the issue is that while chemical companies conduct research of their own, they don't make their chemicals easily available for independent examination.
"It's not objective research if you can financially benefit from the findings," she says. "Right now, you have people who will benefit financially from these chemicals doing the testing and telling you they're OK."
Herbstram has a 3-month-old. Neither she nor her husband smokes. "The chances of catching fire are pretty slim," she says, adding, "I'm frustrated by the fact that if I want to buy a baby swing, I can't buy one without flame retardants."
And furniture labels don't always reflect the chemical content.
The Chicago Tribune published an investigation into the chemicals last year, and found that experts have disproven the fire-retardant properties of the chemicals, but that chemical firms continue pushing their efficacy, framing the matter as one of life or death. A documentary, Toxic Hot Seat, based partly on the newspaper investigation, aired in the U.S. right before Thanksgiving on HBO.
Organizations representing the firms that make the fire-retardant chemicals, however, disagree.
A spokesman for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, an offshoot of the American Chemistry Council, spoke to the Tribune last month in light of the changing California regulations and said: "Families in California should have serious concerns that state officials are lowering fire standards and removing an important layer of fire protection that has benefited Californians for more than 35 years."
And a statement released by the ACC after the regulations changed takes the state office in charge, the Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, to task for "overstepping its regulatory authority in the process."
The organization published a website, flameretardantfacts.com that touts the benefits of flame-retardant chemicals and cites data that shows the falling number of fatal fires.
- From 1982 to 1991, California furniture fires dropped 50 percent.
- Related deaths dropped 83 percent.
- The site doesn't specify whether those percentages take into account any other changes to fire prevention, such as changes in smoking habits or better firefighter response times.
But the fear of fire isn't what keeps Herbstram constantly vacuuming the dust in her home and searching for non-fire-retardant baby gear.
"It's a step in the right direction," she says of the California law.
More changes could eventually be afoot as well. Earlier this year the EPA announced plans to examine the health and environmental impact of 23 chemicals, including the four most common flame retardants.
But for those who worry about the chemicals, the regulatory change seems unlikely to have an instant impact on our health. A study published earlier this year in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal noted that "people's exposure could continue for years."
If not decades. And that's more than enough to keep us shifting uncomfortably in our seats.