Toxic flame retardants in household dust and couches

Toxic flame retardants in household dust and couches

Two new studies published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology document routine exposure to toxic flame retardants in household dust and furniture. The first study, conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, found 55 chemicals in household dust, including chlorinated tris, a carcinogen, at levels exceeding EPA health guidelines. HBCD (HBCYD), listed as priority chemical in Minnesota, was found in every home. Because the study included dust samples from 2006 and 2011, it documented changes in flame retardant use over time. For example, penta-BDE was phased out of use in polyurethane foam in 2005, after it was found to be persistent, toxic and build up in the environment, food system and human body, but it was been replaced with alternatives that are themselves problematic. Levels of penta-replacement chemical, Firemaster 550, increased in 2011. This is concerning because safety data on Firemaster 550 are lacking and there is evidence of reproductive harm. Another toxic chemical found in household dust, chlorinated tris, is also a penta-replacement in foam used in infant products like breastfeeding pillows and changing table mats.

The second study illustrates one source of some toxic flame retardants in household dust. The researchers tested foam samples from 102 couches around the nation, including two from Minnesota. The couch study found that 85 percent of U.S. couches tested contained toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals. It also found that 41 percent of the couches contained the same cancer-causing chlorinated tris, also known as TDCPP, including one of the Minnesota couches tested. Emily Moore, the owner of that couch, noted, “When I bought a new couch a few years ago, I had no idea I was going to be exposing my family to chlorinated tris, a chemical that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s as a mutagen and likely carcinogen. Why should I have to worry about letting my little granddaughter sit and lie on that couch? It's crazy.“

We should be concerned. The chemicals found in household dust and couches include those that persist and build up in the environment, as well as carcinogens, hormone disrupters and developmental toxins. Some of these chemicals are listed as chemicals of high concern in Minnesota, including HBCD, deca-BDE, chlorinated tris (TDCPP), brominated tris (TDBPP) and others.

Beyond concern, we need action to protect our families and to protect public health.  For tips on reducing your exposure to flame retardant chemicals in the home, see the Silent Spring and Healthy Legacy websites.

While it’s important to take precautions as consumers, we also need fundamental reform of chemical regulation at both the state and federal levels. The Safe Chemicals Act would require basic safety data on all chemicals to assure that manufacturers are not replacing one toxic chemical with another and to phase out the worst chemicals that build up in our food. In Minnesota, we can pass the next phase of the Toxic Free Kids Act to require the phase out of priority chemicals in children’s products. Sign up to receive information or get involved.