Conservation Minnesota

Avoiding Toxic Flame Retardants in Your Home

Does the idea of toxic flame retardants lurking in your sofa or mattress disturb you? It should because the chemicals don’t stay in the product – they migrate out into household dust. Flame retardants are widely used in upholstered furniture, some mattresses, carpet padding, as well as children’s products and electronics, providing daily exposures to potentially harmful chemicals.

A new report out today, Flame Retardants in Furniture, Foam, Floors: Leaders, Laggards, and the Drive for Change

identifies the top furniture, mattress, and carpet padding manufacturers that are leaders in removing toxic flame retardants from their products and providing clear information to consumers, as well as laggards that do not make sure foam in their products is free of toxic flame retardants and/or do not provide enough information for consumers to make smart decisions.

  • Ninety percent of sofa manufacturers (10 of 11) that responded to the survey say they do not use flame retardants in their furniture. Six companies did not respond to the survey.
  • Four of the 11 adult mattress manufacturers that responded to the survey reported elimination of all flame retardants, while six have not. One company reported using them in some products and not in others. Three did not respond to the survey.
  • Two of five carpet padding companies that responded to the survey are flame retardant free, because they use rubber instead of foam. Most carpet padding uses recycled foam, which contains some level of flame retardants. However, two companies offer carpet padding made of virgin foam without flame retardants.
  • Consumers can see how the companies surveyed responded in the new report.

Based on this report and other recent surveys, it’s clear that the vast majority of upholstered furniture companies are phasing out the use of added flame retardants. It’s not quite as clear with the mattress industry. It was believed that mattress manufacturers had abandoned the use of added flame retardant chemicals in polyurethane foam to meet stringent flammability requirements. However, this report reveals that many mattress companies do not actively source flame retardant-free foam and/or are adding flame retardant chemicals to other parts of the mattress.

Why Flame Retardants in Furniture?

Even though the state of Minnesota and federal regulators have no requirements to add flame-retardant chemicals to products, manufacturers nationwide have added them to upholstered furniture with polyurethane foam and mattresses to meet flammability standards. They did this to comply with the 1975 California flammability standard (TB 117), which required that the products resist an open flame. Because polyurethane foam is highly flammable, manufacturers added chemical flame-retardants to comply with TB 117. One highly toxic chemical, penta-BDE was phased out of use, only to be replaced with an alphabet soup of chemicals that are almost as bad, including Firemaster 550 (a proprietary flame retardant mixture), TDCPP, TDPP, and others.

Fortunately we no longer need to let California drive the safety of Minnesota products. TB 117 was revised effective January 1, 2014 to require a smolder test, rather than an open flame test. Full compliance with TB 117 2013 was required by January 1, 2015. So manufacturers of upholstered furniture no longer have to add flame-retardants to their products that contain polyurethane foam. However, TB 117 does not regulate flame- retardants so manufacturers can still choose to add them. California also passed a requirement that upholstered furniture manufacturers label products that contain added flame-retardants. That’s good news for consumers!

The 2015 Minnesota legislature passed a ban on four toxic flame-retardants (deca-BDE, HBCD, TDCPP, TCEP) in upholstered furniture and children’s products. Even though this law doesn’t go into effective until July 2018, it’s encouraging that many furniture companies are already phasing out these and other flame-retardants in their products and will be in compliance with the new Minnesota law.

Flammability Standards for Mattresses

Federal regulations 16 CFR § 1632 and 1633, administered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), require all mattresses sold in the United States to meet flammability standards, including children’s mattresses. The standard requires that mattresses resist ignition when exposed to a lighted cigarette and an open flame. Flame retardant chemicals are insufficient to meet the open flame standard, so most companies use barrier materials such as fire-resistant fiber batting or boric acid-treated cotton fiber wrapped around the mattress foam.

Health Risks to Children and Firefighters

Exposure to halogenated flame-retardants (containing bromine or chlorine) and other chemical additives is associated with numerous adverse health effects. Flame-retardants migrate out of products into dust and into the human body. Because children play on the floor and put their fingers in their mouths, they ingest higher levels of these chemicals than adults. Some halogenated flame retardants become global pollutants and build up in the food chain, so we can also be exposed from eating fish, meat, or dairy products.[i]

Halogenated chemicals are likely thyroid hormone disrupters and are linked to an array of adverse health effects including birth defects, cancer, and adverse effects on reproduction, development, the immune system, and learning and behavior. Many are persistent in the environment and release carcinogenic dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, when they burn.

Flame-retardants added to polyurethane foam products have been shown to be ineffective in fire protection. They generate excessive smoke and toxic chemical byproducts that expose firefighters to a toxic soup. Firefighters’ work-related exposure to flame-retardants puts them at higher risk for cancer and other serious health effects.

Flame Retardants in Children’s Products and Electronics

Flame retardants have also been added to a variety of baby products with polyurethane foam, such as changing table pads, toddler furniture, and breastfeeding pillows to comply with TB 117. The new TB 117-2013 exempts 18 juvenile products from compliance with any California flammability standard, including infant walkers, booster seats, infant seats, changing pads, floor play mats, highchairs, highchair pads, infant swings, bassinets, infant bouncers, nursing pads, play yards, playpen side pads, portable hook-on chairs, carriers, nursing pillows, and strollers. However, manufacturers are not required to put any flammability label on the products. Car seats are still regulated under a federal motor vehicle standard, but many companies are phasing out the use of halogenated flame retardants in their products.

While flame retardants are no longer necessary in furniture, mattresses, and children’s products, they are sometimes needed in electronic devices such as computer monitors, televisions, cell phones, and other electrical devices to comply with flammability requirements. Some toxic flame retardants that have been phased out due to toxicity concerns, e.g. deca-BDE and octa-BDE, still remain in older televisions and computer monitors. The flame-retardants are not chemically bound to the plastic, so they migrate into household dust, exposing families. Fortunately, many companies are phasing out toxic flame retardants in their products through design changes and use of safer alternatives. For example, Best Buy has designed their 32” or smaller Insignia televisions to significantly reduce the use of added flame-retardants. Apple has eliminated brominated flame-retardants in their products including external cables, as have over 50% of mobile phone brands.[ii]

What’s a consumer to do?

How can a consumer make sense of various flammability standards, new laws, and market trends? Fortunately there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce or prevent exposure to flame retardant chemicals in your home. See Top Tips for Healthy Kids – Flame Retardants.

Kathleen Schuler, MPH, Healthy Kids and Families Program Director, Co-Director Healthy Legacy

[i] Schecter A Päpke O, Tung KC, Staskal D, Birnbaum L. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers contamination of United States food. Environ Sci Technol. 2004; 38(20):5306-11.

[ii] Greenpeace, Green Gadgets: Designing the Future, 2014

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.

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