My toxic couch:
I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the “new asbestos”. These chemicals (halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly known as PBDE’s. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, responding to the series published by that paper about flame retardants called “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the series), said the use of flame retardants is a public health debacle.
According to “Playing with Fire”, the average American baby is born with “10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded level of flame retardants among infants in the world.” Many of these chemicals accumulate within the blood, fat, and even breast milk, causing a number of unknown health risks. One common ingredient in flame retardants, BDE-49, has recently been found to damage neural mitochondria, leading to brain damage. The same study also found evidence of autism effects being amplified by environmental factors.(1) The MIND Institute at UC Davis, responsible for the study, summarized it by saying the “chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power,” noting that the findings “bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders.”
These chemicals accumulate in human tissues – and they last a really long time . In addition, we’re being constantly re-exposed because they’re ubiquitous in the environment – they’re used for foam in cushions, but also in such things as baby strollers, carpeting, mattresses and electronics. These chemicals are also found in mother’s milk in every country of the world and in animals – from polar bears in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the Amazon.
In the United States, California has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. This standard is called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which was passed in 1975 and requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because California is such a large market, and also because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.
The startling and disturbing result of a published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than do children who were born and raised in Mexico. In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States – and people in the United States have levels of PBDE higher than anyone else in the world.
A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants. These chemicals are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology  also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.
One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads. Tris is now being used again at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.
The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture, yet from 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And during a fire when the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.
So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?
Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!
And when a ban does go into effect, it’s usually severely restricted: for example, in the USA, BPA is now banned in baby bottles – but only in baby bottles. Many products tout the fact that they’re “BPA free” but that’s because the chemical has hit a nerve with consumers, who recognize that BPA isn’t a good thing to have in plastic water bottles, for example, so the manufacturers voluntarily restrict its use. Another example is lead, which has been banned in the USA in some products– paint and gasoline come quickly to mind – but is still used in others, such as plastics, printing, and dyes. New legislation restricts the amount of lead that can be present in products designed for children to 100 ppm, despite the fact that research shows that any detectable amount of lead can be harmful to kids.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”
California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, introduced in February, 2011. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.
However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers – Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. – resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe. This despite opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. But new life is again being breathed into this issue, and California has introduced a new TB117-2013 to address the problem by changing the testing parameters so as not to need flame retardants.
But stay tuned – the chemical industry has a lot at stake and they won’t go down without a fight.
Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.
(1) Napoli E, Hung C, Wong S, Giulivi C., “Toxicity of the flame-retardant BDE-49 on brain mitochondria and neuronal progenitor striatal cells enhanced by a PTEN-deficient background” Toxicol Sci. 2013 Mar;132(1):196-210.
 Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”, http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874
 Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608. http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991
 Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.