Choosing a Chemical Flame-Retardant Free Campus

By Heather Henriksen, Director, Harvard Office for Sustainability and Joe Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment

Today, Harvard becomes the first university in the nation to sign a pledge stating our preference for purchasing furniture that is manufactured without the use of toxic chemical flame retardants. We’re honored to join industry leaders like Kaiser Permanente, Facebook, and Autodesk in acting on what the science tells us is a necessary step forward for the health and well-being of our community. The path that took us to this moment reflects what we believe should be a central responsibility of any university: producing research that is relevant to people’s lives and that can be easily translated into practice on our campus and elsewhere.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency there are over 80,000 chemicals in use today, most are unregulated, and only some have undergone sufficient health testing. At Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and other Harvard Schools, including engineering and design, our researchers are working to better understand how exposure to harmful chemicals can impact human health and the environment. And through the University’s holistic Sustainability Plan and Green Building Standards, Harvard is identifying and tracking chemicals of concern in our built environment.

When public health scientists conduct their research, they think about sources (where pollutants come from and how they migrate into our environments), exposure pathways (determining how chemicals enter our bodies), and adverse health effects (how those exposures impact human health). And on flame retardant chemicals this entire pathway has been worked out thanks to research at Harvard and countless other universities, government agencies and non-profit institutions. The science is clear: halogenated and organophosphorous flame retardants have been widely used in upholstered furniture and other products for several decades; these chemical flame retardants migrate out of products and enter the air and dust in our indoor and outdoor environments, causing near ubiquitous exposure; and exposure to these chemicals is associated with adverse health effects including cancer, interference with the hormone system, impairments to neurological development, and reproductive harm.

Eliminating the use of these chemicals does not weaken fire safety. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found these harmful chemicals do not provide a “practically significant greater level” of safety than untreated furniture. And furniture containing some flame retardants actually emits higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot and smoke than untreated furniture. New fire safety standards that improve safety while allowing manufacturers to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in upholstered furniture allows Harvard, and other organizations, to make good purchasing decisions aligned with what the science tells us is necessary for public health.

Sound science, coupled with product transparency, can help purchasers make smarter, more informed choices on behalf of our community and the environment. The recent updates to the fire safety code that have gone into effect give us the power to intervene and make different purchasing decisions aligned with science and health. Based on the health science and fire safety science, we have identified flame retardants as one class of harmful chemicals that we can effectively target at our institution. We are choosing to minimize the potential adverse impact of exposure to these chemicals, especially for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children and young people, by eliminating or controlling the sources of exposure.

Public health scientists, consumers, and companies are speaking out, advocating for flame retardant-free furniture. We’re happy to report the market is responding. Major manufacturers and retailers are already making and offering furniture without chemical flame retardants, often at a lower cost to consumers. Ikea, Wal-Mart, Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm and Macy’s have all asked their suppliers to eliminate these chemicals from their products.

At Harvard, our efforts to identify and target chemical flame retardants have been fully supported by faculty and students, many of whom have actively been involved in helping us study and act on the issue. Strong collaboration with internal experts at our Strategic Procurement and Environmental Health & Safety teams was also essential, especially in surveying Harvard’s preferred vendors so our purchasers could make informed purchasing decisions. The Office for Sustainability will build on this work by distributing a Chemical Flame Retardant-free toolkit and buyer’s guide to all of our purchasers, project managers, facilities leaders, and outside vendors. It was developed to provide clear, actionable steps for avoiding flame retardants in furniture purchasing throughout the University. The final step in our campaign will be to share our lessons learned with our peers in the higher education, government and business sectors so, together, we can go farther, faster.

The role of science in helping our society to build a healthier, thriving future has never been more paramount. The discoveries generated at universities like Harvard give us insight into how we can make smart, informed decisions for moving forward.

As Harvard’s President Drew Faust has said, “a university community must not only carry out research, but also translate the findings of that research into action.” When the science is clear and regulations have evolved to reflect the science, as is the case with flame retardant chemicals, we should work together to make a difference. By expressing our preference for flame retardant free furniture, Harvard hopes to contribute to the dialogue about the important role that the health of the built environment plays in the well-being of people everywhere. It’s a simple, but important step forward for the health of our planet and people.