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Toxic flame retardants common in household dust and sofas, studies find

Studies have linked flame retardants to serious health concerns, including cancer, neurological and developmental problems and impaired fertility.

Many couches sold today contain flame retardant in spite of the risks posed by the chemicals.

Today brings more disturbing news about the prevalence of flame-retardant chemicals in our homes: A new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has found that household dust exposes us — and, more important, our children — to a remarkably large number of these potentially toxic chemicals.

A second study, published by Duke University researchers in the same journal, found that many sofas, particularly those made after 2005, are also common sources of flame-retardant chemicals.

Studies have linked flame retardants to serious health concerns, including cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and impaired fertility. The research also suggests, as a terrific Chicago Tribune investigative report pointed out last summer, that the chemicals aren’t actually all that effective at doing what they’re supposed to do: prevent fires from taking hold and spreading. In fact, they can actually make fires more toxic — a factor that has become a growing concern among firefighters.

Above health guidelines

For the household-dust study, researchers at the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute collected dust samples in 16 northern California houses in 2006 and again in 2011. They then analyzed the dust for evidence of 49 brominated flame-retardant chemicals and organophosphate flame retardants as well as 13 “legacy” chemicals, organocholorides such as DDT that were banned many years ago.

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They detected 44 flame-retardant chemicals, with 36 appearing in at least half of the samples. “Most homes had dust concentrations of at least one chemical above a health guideline,” notes a background summary released by the Silent Spring Institute in conjunction with the study. “Earlier research shows that house dust is a major source of flame retardants in people’s bodies and particularly in children. Some of the chemicals with the highest levels in homes are carcinogens that are structurally similar to banned chemicals.”

The Duke University sofa study, which tested 102 polyurethane foam samples from sofas purchased in the U.S. between 1985 and 2010, also found ample evidence of flame retardants. Some 85 percent of the sofas (94 percent of those purchased after 2005) contained at least one of the chemicals.

Minnesota would be no different

“These same products are sold in Minnesota and are used by Minnesota consumers,” said Kathleen Schuler, co-director of the Minnesota-based Healthy Legacy campaign, in a phone interview Tuesday. “If you did a testing of household dust here, you’d probably find similar kinds of levels and similar kinds of exposure.” Schuler’s organization was not involved in either of the new studies, but her organization has long advocated the removal of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants, from household products.

Many of the flame retardants detected in the two studies, Schuler added, are relatively new to the market and have undergone little or no independent testing to see if they pose a health risk to humans.

In addition, flame retardants that once caused great concern (but weren’t formally banned) are reappearing — in new products. For example, the flame retardant chlorinated tris was banned from children’s sleepwear in 1977, but has made a comeback in recent years in other household items, including baby changing mats, breastfeeding pillows and car seats.

In fact, the Silent Spring Institute study that was published today found chlorinated tris in the dust of 75 percent of the homes it tested. And 41 percent of the couches tested in the Duke study contained the chemical.

So far, lobbyists for the chemical industry have successfully kept state and federal governments from requiring that any new retardants be proven safe by independent researchers before they go on the market.

“We need comprehensive reform about how chemicals are regulated so that we have a way to finally fix this problem,” said Schuler. Phasing out one chemical only to allow another untested chemical to take its place is not the answer, she added.

Flame-retardant homework

What can you do to reduce your family’s exposure to chemical flame retardants (in addition to lobbying your legislators to strengthen federal and state regulations)? Here are some suggestions from the Silent Spring Institute:

  • Select furnishing and building materials without chemical additives. Choose products instead that are made of naturally flame-resistant materials, such as wood and wool.
  • Avoid foam padding under carpets.
  • If you have furniture made with foam, make sure the foam is not exposed.
  • Keep house dust to a minimum by vacuuming regularly. Use a machine with a HEPA filter. Also, wipe surfaces with a wet cloth or mop.
  • Wash your hands frequently to avoid ingesting contaminated dust.

You can find more suggestions at the Silent Spring Institute’s website. Healthy Legacy’s website also has useful information, including a list of companies committed to phasing out toxic flame retardant chemicals from their products.