Press Releases

Playing on Poisons: Children’s Furniture Found with Harmful Flame Retardant Chemicals

November 20, 2013

Kids’ products with Disney, Marvel, Nickolodeon characters contain chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and other serious health problems

Oakland, CA – Independent testing commissioned by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and 15 other organizations has found harmful flame retardant chemicals in children’s chairs, couches and other kids’ furniture purchased from Walmart, Target, Kmart, Toys R Us/Babies R Us and other major retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Many of the items found with flame retardants are designed with colorful children’s characters including Disney Princesses, Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer, Marvel Comics Spiderman and others. Fire safety scientists say that flame retardant chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, infertility and other serious health problems, do not provide fire safety benefits in furniture.

“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame retardant chemicals when they sit on a Mickey Mouse couch, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” said CEH’s Caroline Cox, co-author of the report “Playing on Poisons: Harmful Flame Retardants in Children’s Furniture” released by CEH today. “Companies that sell these products need to know that parents want safer products made without these harmful chemicals.”

In July and August, CEH and its partner groups purchased 42 items of children’s furniture from 13 states and Canada. Items were purchased from major retailers and sent to Duke University researcher Heather Stapleton for laboratory analysis. Dr. Stapleton is the country’s foremost researcher on testing for flame retardant chemicals in consumer products. Her previous studies on flame retardants in furniture, baby products and other consumer goods have been published in leading peer-reviewed journals and featured in major national news reports.

Dr. Stapleton’s analysis found four flame retardant chemicals (including two chemicals that are mixtures of various flame retardants) in 38 of 42 products tested. Two products contained more than one chemical. The chemicals found were:

• Firemaster 550 (found in 22 items): a mixture of four chemicals, studies have linked exposure to Firemaster 550 with obesity and disruption of the bodies’ natural hormone functioning. Hormone altering effects are especially troubling in children’s products, since children’s developing bodies are especially vulnerable to hormonal changes.

• TCPP (Tris, 15 items): animal studies have linked exposure to TCPP to genetic damage and changes in the length of the menstrual cycle.

• TDCPP (chlorinated Tris, 2 items) is identified as a chemical known to cause cancer by the state of California and the National Research Council. Studies have also linked exposures to genetic damage, effects on fertility and natural hormones, and damage to developing embryos. Health concerns forced companies to remove TDCPP from children’s pajamas in the 1970’s yet it is still widely used today in furniture and other products.

• Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate (1 item): According to the EPA, health concerns associated with exposures to Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate, a mixture of four chemicals, include decreased fertility and abnormal menstrual cycles.

Children are more vulnerable to toxic flame retardant chemicals than adults are because of their behaviors and physical needs. Children put their hands in their mouths often, and touch whatever is near them. Young children crawl and play where dust containing high levels of flame retardants settles in homes, daycares and schools. A recent study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research found that children carry on average three times higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies than the levels found in their mothers. Other recent studies show that children of color and children from low-income communities have higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies than levels found in white children.

Flame retardant chemicals are used in these products despite their lack of efficacy largely due to an outdated, decades-old California flammability standard called TB 117. Adopted in 1975, this standard calls for foam in furniture to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds. Yet this approach fails to meet real world conditions, since in a fire the outside fabric will ignite initially, not the interior foam. Fire safety scientists say that once fabric ignites, the fire will be too large to be controlled by the chemical flame retardants used in foam – thus rendering the chemicals virtually useless for fire safety.

This year, California proposed a new flammability rule, TB 117-2013. The new rule is slated to go into effect on January 1, 2014. Companies may use the new standard to comply with the new rule immediately, but will have until January 1, 2015 before they are required to comply. CEH and its partner organizations expect many companies will make the switch to safer, flame-retardant free products quickly. The Business and Institutional Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) has stated, “…we believe the risks associated with the use of these [flame retardant] chemicals is greater than the hazard associated with the fire risk from furniture without fire retardants… Many furniture purchasers are looking for safer, more environmentally friendly products that do not contain chemicals of concern, including fire retardants.”

In addition to CEH (California and New York), organizations participating in the purchasing and testing include Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Ecojustice, New Brunswick Environmental Network, Clean Water Action-Connecticut, Kentucky Environmental Foundation, Environmental Health Strategy Center (Maine), Clean Water Action-Massachusetts, Ecology Center (Michigan), Healthy Legacy (Minnesota), Women’s Voices for the Earth (Montana), Clean and Healthy New York, Oregon Environmental Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Washington Toxics Coalition.

The Center for Environmental Health has a seventeen-year track record of protecting children and families from harmful chemicals in our air, water, food and in dozens of every day products. CEH also works with major industries and leaders in green business to promote alternatives to toxic products and practices. In 2010, the San Francisco Business Times bestowed its annual “Green Champion” award to CEH for its work to improve health and the environment in the Bay Area and beyond.