Stephanie M. Lee
November 28, 2012

Toxic flame retardants pervade the nation’s households, especially California’s, and little can be done to keep them out of our bodies, two new scientific studies find.

The studies, published Wednesday, arrive as state and federal lawmakers are pushing for stricter regulations on potentially hazardous chemicals that go into furniture, electronics and other products.

California has been a prominent force behind fire retardants because of a 1975 state law, the only one of its kind in the nation, which requires foam in furniture to withstand a 12-second open flame without catching on fire.

Gov. Jerry Brown now wants regulations to reduce the number of chemicals permitted in furniture, but experts say the law has already done damage nationwide. In a bow to California’s powerhouse economy, they say, manufacturers saturated furniture with flame retardants.

Consumers rarely know what chemicals are in the furniture products they buy because they are considered trade secrets. As a likely result, levels of flame-retardant chemicals in California children are among the world’s highest, according to 2010 studies.

Some fire-retardant chemicals were banned and phased out in 2005. But the new studies, which were conducted separately and appear together in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, add to a growing body of research that shows that homes have not become significantly safer.

One of the new studies, led by UC Berkeley and Duke University scientists, found toxic or untested flame retardants in most of the couches they examined from across the nation. The other study also found that hazardous and potentially hazardous chemicals in dust from couches and other products pervaded 13 of 16 homes tested in Northern California. Both studies turned up substances that, when inhaled or ingested, are linked to cancer, changes in DNA, hormone disruption, lowered IQ, decreased fertility, hyperactivity and other serious health issues.

Chemicals in all couches

Anyone who wants a sofa will find it virtually impossible to avoid these chemicals, experts said.

“You really do not have a choice to buy furniture without flame retardants anywhere in the country,” said Arlene Blum, co-lead author of the couch study. Blum is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, a health watchdog group in Berkeley.

The studies “point out these two essentially glaring, frustrating situations in which we cannot make our own choices as consumers, and where we cannot fully understand very broad, large-scale decisions in marketing and manufacturing that might affect our future before they happen,” said Barbara Cohn, who directs the Public Health Institute‘s Child Health and Development Studies in Berkeley and was not part of the studies.

For the couch study, Blum and her team studied chunks of foam from 102 sofas that were bought between 1985 and 2010, sent to them by people from various regions of the nation.

Toxic or untested flame retardants were in 85 percent of the couches overall and in every couch bought in California since 2005. There was no easy way for consumers to know, because California law does not require that furniture be labeled for flame retardants. Researchers also compared couches purchased before 2005, the year a main flame retardant, PBDEs, was banned, with those purchased afterward.

Even that ban did not significantly reduce hazardous exposure in households, the researchers found, because PBDEs remain in humans for up to 12 years after exposure and many couches bought more than seven years ago are still in use.

In addition, when the ban took effect, PBDEs were seemingly replaced by another chemical, chlorinated Tris, the researchers found. It was detected in half of the couches purchased after 2005 that they studied.

Changes to DNA

The dangers of chlorinated Tris are well-known. The chemical was removed from baby pajamas in 1977 when it was found to change the DNA of people exposed to it, and California now lists it as a carcinogen.

Researchers also found evidence of a fire retardant known as Firemaster 550, which showed up in larger amounts in the newer couches than the older ones. Firemaster 550 has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor in animals, but its health effects in humans are largely unknown.

The findings underscore the likely dangers of replacing one chemical with another, the scientists said.

“Any new chemicals that we’re introducing, we’re dealing with another chemical, or class of chemicals, with long half-lives that we haven’t studied in terms of health consequences,” said Brenda Eskenazi, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, who was not part of Blum’s study.

Until recently, Sue Chiang, 42, had never heard of Firemaster 550.

Five years ago, she grew worried that her old, dusty couch would cause allergies, so she sold it. She and her husband bought a burgundy microfiber sofa at J.C. Penney and plunked it in the living room of the Oakland house they moved into in 2008.

The couple’s two kids, a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, watch TV on it and build forts with the cushions. When they go to bed, Chiang and her husband sit on it and work on their laptops.

But the couch became cause for alarm when Chiang, a pollution prevention co-director at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, learned of Blum’s study. She sent in a chunk of the foam, and the scientists found elements of Firemaster 550.

“I was worried about this old couch and allergens,” Chiang said. “I didn’t even think about chemicals.”

A homeowner’s experience

Sylvia Hopkins, 68, of Richmond thought she knew about chemicals.

In 2006, scientists from the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group in Massachusetts, visited Hopkins’ home and those of 15 others in Richmond and Bolinas to study flame retardants in house dust.

Their study came about because U.S. adults are primarily exposed to PBDEs through house dust, and those chemicals are disproportionately high in California’s homes and its residents.

The investigators returned in 2011 to see what had changed. Hopkins had given away an old couch, so she figured her dust would be safer.

To her shock, the scientists found higher levels of some flame retardants but couldn’t explain why. “I don’t have things in my house that I consider to be polluting,” Hopkins said.

Researchers found higher-than-expected levels of two state-listed carcinogens, including chlorinated Tris, and increased levels of Firemaster 550 components. Thirteen of 16 homes had at least one flame retardant that exceeded a federal health guideline.

Those findings mirror the patterns Blum saw in sofas.

“Our study says those chemicals don’t stay in the couches, they come out into house dust, and we’re finding them at levels of health concern,” said Julia Brody, one of the study’s authors and executive director of the Silent Spring Institute.

The American Chemistry Council responded to the studies by defending flame retardants, saying they can buy valuable escape time if a fire breaks out.

“There is no data in (Blum’s) study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems,” the organization said, and the dust study “should not be interpreted to indicate that the levels detected would have any effects on human health.”

That reassurance, however, isn’t sufficient for people like Hopkins.

“We have no way of knowing what they’re doing to us,” she said.

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