Why are flame retardants required in furniture, anyway?

Analyzing the latest research affecting women.
June 21 2010 11:18 AM

My Ikea Couch Reeks of Chemicals

Why are flame retardants required in furniture, anyway?

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I was pretty sure whatever was in there wasn't Kryptonite, but no one seemed to have a better explanation. The company's Web site and statements were vague. I called Ikea's corporate media division, but they never called back. I decided to cleave off a small piece of the mattress and send it to Duke University. There toils Heather Stapleton. A dedicated young environmental chemist and new mother, Stapleton has become something of a flame-retardant queen. She tested house dust from across the country and determined that it's the major pathway of exposure to flame retardants for children, pets, and adults. The chemicals in dust come mostly from furniture and electronics. She's currently in the process of testing 100 baby products for flame retardants. (Manufacturers are generally loath to offer any information on which chemicals their products contain and labeling is not required.)

As a general concept, I'm not opposed to the idea of flame retardants. I was aboard an Airbus A330 recently that had to make an emergency landing because of a burning wire, and I was grateful for the chemicals. But it's one thing to have them in an airplane and another to have them marinating your home's furniture, including baby pillows.

Stapleton found that my couch contains a flame retardant called 1,3-dichloroisopropyl phosphate, better known as tris, or TCDPP. This was one of the notorious flame retardants used in children's pajamas in the 1970s, until Blum and other scientists showed that the chemicals caused DNA mutations. Public outcry forced clothing manufacturers to stop using them. Most of the scary research at that time was done on brominated tris, and the type in my couch is chlorinated tris. The theory goes that the chlorinated version breaks down more easily in the environment but is more volatile, meaning that more of it escapes the foam. It probably acts in similar ways to brominated tris in the human body. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission classifies TDCPP as a probable human carcinogen, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it a moderate cancer hazard.

The first time Stapleton's mass-spectrometry machine identified tris, she couldn't believe it. "At first, I thought, no one could be using this after all the concern in the '70s. We were shocked." But recently, Stapleton has found tris in a lot of Ikea products as well as in some made by other companies, including an infant nursing pillow. (The flame retardants probably weren't causing the smell that bothered me, though—Stapleton said that was other nasties that come from making foam.)

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To be fair, Ikea has few options. It does not put these flame retardants in furniture sold in any countries other than the United States and the U.K. Interested in what Ikea had to say about all of this, I e-mailed Bjorn Frithiof, a chemical specialist in the company's laws-and-standards department in Sweden. He responded as soon as the sun rose over Småland, the city where he works. He seemed both matter-of-fact and contrite. "IKEA aims to refrain from the use of chemicals and substances that could potentially be harmful to people and the environment," Frithiof wrote. "IKEA is currently phasing out all flame retardants of the chlorinated tristype from our products. This work is well on its way and will be completed during autumn 2010." In a later e-mail, he said the company would replace tris with "an organo-phosphorous compound which gets incorporated into the polymer matrix of the foam filling. It is a bit early to say if this solution will be the dominant one for our products."

There's nothing great about organo-phosphates, which can also persist in the environment. But if Ikea can figure out how to bind the chemicals to the foam, that would help. It would mean the chemical wouldn't waft out every time you plunk down on the couch.

A better solution one would be to get rid of California's outdated flammability standards, or at least exempt certain products, especially ones made for children, who appear more vulnerable to these chemicals. The best ways to save lives from fire are to install working fire alarms and to quit smoking, and enough Americans have done those to reduce fire fatalities by half in recent decades. In addition, most states in the United States now require cigarettes to self-extinguish. Reforming California's standard won't be easy, says Blum, who first published her findings on the health hazards of brominated tris as the lead article in Science more than 30 years ago. She has led the first American expedition to climb Annapurna and walked 2,000 miles across the Himalayas; she says both were easier than fighting the chemical industry over flammability laws.

I haven't decided yet what to do with my couch. Landfill? Hazardous waste? Gift for the childless brother-in-law? In the meantime, I'm still opening a lot of windows.

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