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Too Close for Comfort — Toxic Chemicals in Our Couches and Clothing

Series of studies show toxic flame retardants in most US couches and harmful chemicals in branded clothes

Evidence is mounting that toxins are infiltrating the one place most of us believe we are safe in — our homes. Several studies came out this month showing how our furniture, household dust, and even the clothes we wear contain hazardous chemicals.

dog couch Photo by Flickr user SpacemanorPart of the concern with the toxic chemicals in flame retardants is that they migrate from the foam into
household dust, where people, especially children, easily inhale them.

A study, published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, detected chemical flame retardants in 85 percent of 102 residential couches tested. Of the polyurethane foam samples tested by a joint team for researchers from University of California, Berkeley and Duke University, 41 percent contained chlorinated Tris (or TDBPP), a suspected carcinogen, and another 17 percent contained the globally banned chemical, pentaBDE (PBDE).

Part of the concern with these chemicals is that they migrate from the foam into household dust, where people, especially children, easily inhale them. Another study by scientists at the Silent Spring Institute also published in Environmental Science and Technology today, analyzed dust in 16 California homes and found up to 55 toxic compounds in a single sample.  At least 51 percent of the samples had 41 of the 55 compounds and chlorinated Tris was detected in 75 percent of homes.

Several of these chemicals are labeled probable carcinogens. According to Dr Arlene Blum, a chemist at UC Berkeley and lead researcher of the couch study, many of the flame retardants have been associated with hormone disruption, as well as neurological and reproductive toxicity in animals and humans. A recent study associated PBDE exposure with neurological deficiencies, such as poorer attention, fine motor skills, and cognition in children.

Although the exact effects of different flame retardants on humans remain uncertain, many of the compounds contained in them are very similar to PCBs, which have been linked to a host of health problems, including lower IQ and diabetes. “Despite all that we have learned about PCBs, we are making the same mistakes with flame retardants,”  R Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, said in an interview with The New York Times.

We are certainly repeating history with Tris. In the 1970s, Tris was banned in clothing because of carcinogenicity, following a movement by Blum, who has been on a crusade to end use of flame retardants for years. “Hard to believe, 35 years after our research contributed to removing Tris from children’s sleepwear, our current study suggests that more than a third of Americans couches contain the same toxic flame retardant,” said Blum, who is also founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, which provides scientific data to facilitate informed decisions about chemicals used in consumer products. “And sadly enough, many Americans could now have increased cancer risks from the Tris in their furniture.”

Even though Tris has been banned in clothing, our clothes are still ridden with chemicals.

Yet another report by Greenpeace, released earlier this month, tested garments from 20 leading fashion brands and found that all tested brands had at least several items containing potentially harmful Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). The investigative report "Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up," found the highest concentrations of NPEs in clothing items from Zara, Metersbonwe, Levi’s, C&A, Mango, Calvin Klein, Jack & Jones and Marks & Spencer. Other chemicals identified included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the products, and traces of a cancer-causing amine (an ammonia derivative) from the use of certain dyes.

These chemicals are not only potentially detrimental to human health (NPEs break down into hormone-disrupting chemicals), but also degrade the environment. "Major fashion brands are turning us all into fashion victims by selling us clothes that contain hazardous chemicals that contribute to toxic water pollution around the world, both when they are made and washed," says Yifang Li, Senior Toxics Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

Why are we poisoning ourselves with these toxic chemicals? To outweigh the risks, these chemicals surely must play some crucial role, right? At first glance, a reasonable case can be made for the flame retardants. Nobody wants houses to burn down. However, this is dubious front.

Both of the household studies published today cite California’s furniture flammability standard — Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) — as the main culprit for the prevalence of chemicals in our homes. Flame retardant levels were higher in couches bought in California than anywhere else and children's exposure to PBDE’s in California is among the highest in the world. Unfortunately, due to the size of California’s market the state’s flammability standards have become the de facto standard. Couches across the US contain flame retardants.

California’s standards require that couch foam withstand a direct flame for 12 seconds, in order to reduce the residential fires. Despite seemingly good intentions, this regulation is useless, argues fire-safety scientist and former head of the combustion-toxicology program for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Vytenis Babrauskas. The chemicals applied to foam in order to comply with the standards are ineffective, Babrauskas told The NYT.  The standard is based on applying a flame to a bare piece of foam. “If you take a cigarette lighter and put it on a chair,” he says, “there’s no naked foam visible on that chair.” Before the flame gets to the bare foam, where the flame retardants are applied, it ignites the fabric upholstery, which then allows the fire to burn long enough to ignite the foam beneath.

Babrauskas says that TB 117 compliant chairs catch fire just as easily and burn just as hot. “This is not speculation,” he says. “There were two series of tests that prove what I’m saying is correct.”

Similarly, Dr. Donald Lucas, a combustion scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley says: “It is the exposure to toxic gases, soot, and smoke during combustion that is responsible for most fire deaths and injuries, according to National Fire Protection Association data.”

Flame retardants are not the lesser of two evils — they do not save lives — and yet they are ubiquitous. In the case of clothing, the use of toxic chemicals is similarly mysterious. They don’t appear to have a significant, explicit purpose. Yet, because these chemicals are quiet killers, they have slipped under the radar. Their health impacts can take years to develop, lacking the drama of a fire.

Additionally, these chemicals are hard to spot. “It is exceedingly difficult for consumers to distinguish a toxic couch from one without flame retardants,” said Dr. Veena Singla of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Unless you can afford to buy expensive organic furniture, there is no easy way to know if your couch is free of flame retardants.”

Change may be coming though. Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign, aimed at removing chemicals from clothing, has been gaining momentum. Similarly, in June, California Governor Jerry Brown, called for new fire-safety furniture standards, which would allow furniture manufactures to eliminate flame retardants.

Perhaps the industry will concede. After all, as Bob Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association told The NYT: “ We sell comfort. … Comfort is also a state of mind, and the controversy is not helpful to raising the comfort image of our products.”

Audrey Haynes, Journal intern
Audrey is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University in Earth and Environmental Science. She can most reliably be found boppin around the mountains and wilderness.

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