The Chemicals In Your Couch May Pose Serious Health Risks

Written by Alice G. Walton,

More and more, studies are calling out the serious health risks of the flame retardant chemicals that are almost always present in our sofas, upholstery, rugs, and even electronics. The risk is particularly high for children, whose brains are still developing and are therefore especially vulnerable to the chemicals. What’s also concerning, as new research points out, is that the levels of some of these chemicals are found in much higher abundance than previously thought. And, as they are released from household items in the form of microscopic dust, we inhale and ingest them constantly, which is particularly true for the kiddos.

Of the 55 chemicals tested for in one new study in Environmental Science & Technology, 44 were found in household items, and 41 were found in at least 50% of the samples tested. The study was carried out in a sampling of California homes, since the state’s stricter flammability regulations have become the de facto standard for the rest of the country.

The most prevalent group of chemicals was one known as the chlorinated organophosphates, which include TCEP and TDCIPP (a.k.a., chlorinated “Tris”). Under California’s Proposition 65, these chemicals are fall under the ominous “carcinogen” category. Brominated Tris was banned in children’s pajamas in the 1970s for fear of adverse health effects, but it’s still present in three-quarters of people’s homes today, according to the study. Other common flame retardant chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the ways in which our hormones function, and can inhibit neurological development in young brains.

“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day,” said study author Robin Dodson. “These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure.” In fact, another recent study found that corresponding levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals called PBDEs were found on toddlers’ hands and in their blood stream, which suggests that young kids are taking in the chemicals primarily through hand-to-mouth action.

There are, bizarrely, no federal guidelines for routine safety testing of flame retardant chemicals. The EPA lists guidelines for only a handful of the chemicals, but the new study found that some chemicals were present in higher levels than approved by the EPA.

Part of the problem is that even if one flame retardant is phased out for concern over its health risks, another compound will inevitably replace it – and the new compound is not likely to have undergone any kind of safety testing itself. For example, the presence of one flame retardant, Firemaster® 550, containing several chemicals, has increased over the last six years, probably because it’s taking the place of PentaPBDE, which has been linked some disturbing neurological effects in children. But earlier studies have shown the chemicals in Firemaster® 550 to be endocrine disruptors themselves, not to mention “obesogens” (meaning they alter metabolism and may lead to weight gain) in the offspring of female rodents who were exposed to it.

“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be,” said author Julia Brody. “It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market.”

Another study published in the journal today pointed out that a lot of the chemical load comes from our sofas – up to 11% of the sofa’s material can be made up of the compounds, which can equate to about a pound of dangerous or untested chemicals in your couch. “Overall, we detected flame-retardant chemicals in 85 percent of the couches we tested and in 94 percent of those purchased after 2005,” said author Heather Stapleton. “More than half of all samples, regardless of the age of the couch, contained flame retardants that are potentially toxic or have undergone little or no independent testing for human health risks.”

There’s been a big push for officials to revamp guidelines, or to put some in place where there are none. As more people become aware of the health issues at stake, hopefully more will speak up to urge officials to make a move and put some guidelines in place. For more information about how to protect yourself and your kids from these household chemicals, and to get involved in policy change, see the press release here.

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