Why it Matters
Not very long ago, toxic flame retardants were used in the making of nearly all our couches, chairs, changing pads, and nap mats. Thanks in part to over a decades-long campaign by CEH and allies to rid these products of unnecessary toxins, these chemicals have been banned in California and Maine with many other states attempting to do the same. However, for far too long, this wasn’t always the case.
Whether you’re a parent or not, keeping children safe is something you probably think about often, and keeping children safe from fires is just one of the many shared safety concerns. Decades ago, the tobacco and chemical lobbyists had deceived lawmakers into requiring these chemicals in all furniture and even children’s products — despite being clearly linked to major health problems like infertility, lowered intelligence, hyperactivity, obesity, and cancer.
Yet, flame-retardants did nothing to make us safer from a fire. Government studies found that furniture with flame retardants did not perform significantly better than furniture without flame retardants. In fact, in a perverse twist, these chemicals were linked to higher rates of cancer in firefighters. To make matters worse, children are particularly vulnerable to these toxic chemicals because their brains and reproductive organs are still developing, and they come into greater contact with household dust than adults from crawling and playing on furniture, and putting their hands in their mouths.
What We Did
In 2013, CEH and organizations from 11 other states and a province in Canada, purchased a total of 42 children’s sofas, chairs, and other furniture products, many branded with characters from Disney, Marvel Comics, Sesame Street, and Nickelodeon. Products were purchased from Walmart, Target, Kmart, Babies “R” Us and Toys “R” Us, buybuy Baby, and other retailers.
In 2014, CEH announced groundbreaking legal agreements that for the first time aimed to end the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in foam furniture and children’s foam products from major companies. The agreement with Playtex (Energizer Personal Care), West Elm (Williams Sonoma), Britax, and 11 other companies comes on the heels of implementation of a new California flammability standard that for the first time in decades gives companies easier ways to produce safer furniture made without flame retardant chemicals.
After a stunning exposé of how the tobacco and chemical lobby had lied, including front groups and false experts, CEH and our allies pushed California lawmakers to drop the requirement for flame retardants on furniture. We then moved on to transform the marketplace and CEH helped tip the scales. We went from having over 80% of furniture with flame retardants in 2014 to a market where more than 80% of furniture sold in 2018 was free of these toxic and unnecessary chemicals.
The fight did not stop there — we wanted these chemicals gone from furniture altogether. In 2018, CEH pushed for and won the first statewide ban on flame retardants in furniture and children’s products in California. Given the large size of California’s market, this law will likely drive companies to make products safer for the entire nation.
All families deserve healthier products and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission should adopt a national flammability standard that provides fire safety without the use of flame retardant chemicals. We need enforceable national standards so that no matter where you live, you will have fire-safe products that won’t expose your family to unnecessary and harmful flame retardant chemicals.
What you can do
Purchase products made without polyurethane foam. Opt for products made of wool, cotton, down or polyester. Avoid products that have a TB 117 label as these are likely to contain flame retardant chemicals. For products with a TB 117-2013 label: Read the label carefully to see if it indicates whether flame retardants are present. If the label does not indicate this, call the store manager or manufacturer and ask if the product contains flame retardant chemicals. Be a wary consumer of deeply discounted furniture. Ask companies if their products are free of flame retardants.
Hand-Me-Downs and Second Hand Stores
While there is nothing better than receiving a “hand-me-down” or finding a bargain in a second-hand store, it will be difficult to know if this product may contain flame retardants. Here are some suggestions:
- Avoid polyurethane products that have a TB 117 label as these products most likely contain flame retardants. And unlike some other chemicals flame retardants don’t “go away” as the product ages.
- Products filled with wool, cotton, down or polyester are unlikely to contain flame retardant chemicals so those are safer choices.
- For products with a TB 117-2013 label: Read the label carefully to see if the box is checked that says whether flame retardants are present. If the label does not indicate that the product does not contain flame retardants, do not use this product. Unfortunately, due to the self-interests and fears of liability of the children’s products association, with the exception of children’s furniture, no labeling for flame retardant content is required on other children’s products.
Wash your hands and your children’s hands often, especially before eating or after handling dryer lint or changing a vacuum cleaner bag — it’s no longer just for protecting against germs! Support state efforts to provide toxic-free fire safety and efforts to fix our nation’s outdated and ineffective chemical policy regulations.
CEH Blog: Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals Have Gotta Go
CEH Report: Playing on Poisons: Harmful Flame-Retardants in Children’s Furniture
CEH Press Release: Governor Jerry Brown Signs Historic Toxic Flame-Retardant Ban
CEH Press Release: Landmark Legal Agreements Aim to End Use of Flame Retardants
CEH Guide: Are Your Children Safe from Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals?