Your Couch May Be Giving You Cancer

A new peer reviewed study shows that most of the couches purchased in the U.S. between 1985 and 2010 contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found that 85% of the 102 couches tested were treated with chemical flame retardants that are either known to be toxic or lack adequate health information. The most common flame retardant in couches was the notorious TDCPP, or chlorinated Tris, a carcinogen that was banned from use in children’s sleepwear over 35 years ago.

Dr. Arlene Blum, Couch Crusader

The person perhaps most responsible for that ban was Dr. Arlene Blum (who in 1976 became the first American woman to attempt to summit Mount Everest). In the late 1970s, Dr. Blum and her colleagues showed that chlorinated Tris was carcinogenic, and policy makers quickly banned the chemical from use in kid’s pajamas.

But chlorinated Tris was not banned from other products, and it has returned to the consumer market as a flame retardant in couches.

Dr. Blum, now 67, has made something of a crusade in recent years to ban chlorinated Tris and other toxic chemicals from consumer products. In 2007, Dr. Blum helped found the Green Science Policy Institute, an organization that researches chemicals used in consumer products in order to protect human health and the environment.

“Research… traces the path of toxic flame retardants from our couches to the dust in our homes to our children’s bodies,” Dr. Blum, who co-authored the latest study, told TriplePundit in an e-mail. “Sadly, new human health findings document reduced attention, fine motor coordination, and IQ in children exposed to furniture flame retardants.”

The Terrible Technical Bulletin 117

Much of the blame for the chemical’s resurgence rests on the shoulders of California’s Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), a state-wide flammability standard requiring foam used in furniture to withstand a short open flame test. California is one of the world’s largest consumer markets, and furniture makers are forced to ensure that their products comply with California safety standards. Ninety-four percent of couches purchased outside California during the last 7 years contained flame retardants.

Even huge furniture companies like IKEA say their hands are tied when it comes to toxic chemicals in couches. Malin Nasman, Product Requirements and Compliance Specialist at IKEA US, said a revision of TB117 “will hopefully enable IKEA to design upholstered furniture that is flame resistant without the use of flame retardant chemicals.”

Bizarrely, toxic flame retardants have not been proven to effectively increase fire safety. Tests conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Underwriters Laboratories and independent fire scientists have all shown that chlorinated Tris and other flame retardants are ineffective.

“The fire just laughs at these chemicals,” according to Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, a leading fire safety engineer. “Given their toxicity, it’s really the worst of both worlds.”

Moreover, other methods of fire prevention have been proven more effective. “Improved building codes requiring smoke detectors and water sprinklers, self-extinguishing cigarettes, and overall decreased rates of smoking have had a much bigger impact on the fewer number of fires and fire deaths observed over the past few decades,” wrote Sarah Janssen, Senior Scientist for the National Resource Defense Council’s Health Program, in a recent blog post.

The American Chemistry Council’s Methods of Misinformation

Perhaps the only group that supports TB117 is the chemical industry, represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which stands to lose money if the flame retardants are banned. ACC, whose member list includes chemical giants like BASF, Dow, DuPont, LyondellBassel and Shell Chemicals, disagreed with the researchers’ interpretation of the findings.

“This study confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives,” said ACC in a statement. “There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems.”

To support its view, ACC often refers to a 25-year-old study led by Dr. Babrauskas, the fire safety engineer. In a damning interview, Dr. Babrauskas recently told The Chicago Tribune that ACC “grossly distorted” his findings, and the Tribune’s investigation found that ACC regularly manipulated scientific findings to fit their objectives.

“The misuse of Babrauskas’ work is but one example of how the chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks,” wrote Tribune reporters Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan. “The industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.”

Relief may be on the way. The New York State Assembly recently voted to ban chlorinated Tris, and organizations such as the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety is working to revise TB117.

Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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