Flame Retardants Are Still a Part of Everyday Life

There are many serious reasons to avoid conventional couch cushion foam[1].  Polyurethane foam is a plastic that not only cannot biodegrade or be recycled, it contains chemical additives like flame retardants[2] that have long term and far reaching effects on the health of our people and planet. 

TB117-2013 doesn’t ban all flame retardants in the home

Flame retardants encompass a variety of chemical combinations and are used in plastic products like baby mattresses, building materials, and furniture.  TB117-2013[3] changed the furniture industry by no longer requiring flame retardants in cushion foam, a victory hugely supported by consumers and the media alike.  

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Exposure to flame retardants inside and outside the home are via inhalation and ingestion[6].

However, there are five classes of flame retardants based on their chemical makeup[4], and TB117-2013 focuses on one class, known as brominated flame retardants.  Brominated flame retardants contain PBDEs[5], the neurotoxin that causes hormone disruption and infertility.  Whether it’s old furniture or newly formulated flame retardants in other parts of the home, airborne dust and flame retardants are as pervasive and dangerous as ever.

Dust, the messenger of deception

Flame retardants are found in foam used in couch and chair cushions, and all have the ability to wistfully float around in the air and settle in with the dust bunnies.  These tiny bits of foam plastic, filled with these neurotoxic chemicals, detach from the foam as the cushion ages.  It’s natural for all old, used things to fall apart.  

The problem is these particles attach to dust and travel around both inside and outside of your home.  We inhale it while walking to the bathroom, baby ingests it while putting a hand in her mouth, and a flop on the couch automatically poofs a cloud of flame retardants into the air.  Increased air circulation and ventilation inside the home, children playing outdoors more frequently, and vacuuming and mopping consistently can help reduce exposure to dust.

Dust and flame retardants in old furniture

I’m pretty sure many of us still have granny’s favorite chair full of fond memories and dust, or an awesome thrift store find full of cool style and dust.  Upholstered furniture made between 1975-2015 are highly likely to contain flame retardants.  The easiest way to know if you have flame retardants is that big white label on the bottom of the chair or seat; even newly current furniture has this label. 

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(Does My Furniture Contain Flame Retardants?, greensciencepolicy.org, 2013. Web. 17 December)[7]

Flame retardants in the environment

"Size of circle is proportionate to the concentration of total PBDEs (ng/ g of lipid weight) found in tree bark at the indicated location (from data in Salamova 2013[8])."[6]

“Many halogenated flame retardants are structurally related to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and are also environmentally persistent and bioaccumulative” (‘Health and Environment’, greensciencepolicy.org. Web)[6].  Because bromine is molecularly bonded to carbon, this compound does’t break down which gives it more opportunity to travel further distances in the air. 

Note the above infograph which shows PBDEs in Nepal and Tasmania although it was discontinued almost ten years previously in North America.[6]  It’s hard to believe an animal food chain, in a completely different continent, is gravely effected by a foamy couch in the USA.  Mind blown—sadly.

New flame retardants, same old problems

Like most who high five TB117-2013 for kicking the brominate class of flame retardants to the curb, we cannot forget that each kind of flame retardant also has a specific use.  In fact, “they are not interchangeable… A variety of flame retardants is necessary because the elements in flame retardants react differently with fire.”[10]  Indeed we no longer wrestle with PBDEs thanks to TB117-2013, but we continue to face it's cancer causing replacements known as TDCIPP[9] and TPHP[11], both affectionally known as Chlorinated Tris[12], members of the Phosphorus class of flame retardants commonly used today.  

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Natural latex is biodegradable and flame retardant free!

The Environmental Science & Technology Letters just today published a study[13] revealing, “levels of chlorinated Tris, or TDCIPP, in adults rose fifteen fold from 2002 to 2015, and increased in children by a factor of four from 2010 to 2015. The study aggregated data from 14 earlier studies and found that levels of another flame retardant, triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, also rose in adults.”  (Study:  Dramatic Rise in Flame Retardant Levels in Kids and Adults, EWG.org, 2017.  Web. 7 February 2016)[6].  If we have learned anything from TB117-2013 and PBDEs, is that Chlorinated Tris like TDCIPP and TPHP, are ultimately life threatening choices that we should avoid.  The war that was won with TB117-2013 seemingly was, actually a battle we still fight in the larger picture to preserve our health, home, and planet.

Step by step

In these present days of tumultuous politics and environmental unrest, we have an increased need to have and share transparent and reliable information.  Explore all the links and click throughs in this blog, and learn more about what’s really going on inside your furniture.  I can help restore your old furniture, change out polyurethane foam for custom cut natural latex foam, and even fill pillows with shredded natural latex and kapok.  But only you…only you…can decide if this knowledge is worth acting on.


Interested in learning more? Read about more green upholstery topics below!