Why are flame retardants required in furniture, anyway?

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June 21 2010 11:18 AM

My Ikea Couch Reeks of Chemicals

Why are flame retardants required in furniture, anyway?

Sofa. Click image to expand.
An Ikea Beddinge sofa.

I happen to live in a state that does not have an Ikea. (I know! Shocking!) So when I found out about Cyber Monday, a newly anointed retail holiday on which many stores offer free shipping for Internet orders placed several weeks before Christmas, I ordered my Beddinge. It's a minimalist futon couch. It's dark gray and cost less than $300.

The couch came (freely) delivered in two large pieces: The mattress tightly rolled up in plastic, the frame in a flat box. Two guys hauled them into a spare room in the basement. After months of putting it off, I squared my shoulders and headed downstairs for some assembly combat involving a bewildering variety of Allen wrenches and spring-release hinges. Then I slashed the plastic wrap around the mattress. I was soon overcome by a sweet and pungent chemical smell.

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Here, I have to tell you, my soldier's heart pretty much fell. Why was my sleek little Swedish couch reeking of something nasty? Wasn't Ikea the company with the long corporate reports about tree planting and forward-thinking policies on hazardous materials—and one of the first major retailers to discontinue the use of brominated flame retardants in furniture?

This was the reason I'd bought the couch. I know a bit about flame retardants because five years ago, I became one of a handful of women in America to measure them in my breast milk for a story I wrote for the New York Times Magazine. The European Union had recently banned two of the major commercial formulas of brominated flame retardants, called penta- and octa-BDEs. Produced in large quantities in the United States to meet furniture and other fire codes, they were poured into products—and quickly migrated into dust, air, soil, waterways, effluent, and food. Because flame retardants don't break down easily, they remain for years in the tissues of birds, aquatic organisms and mammals, including us, albeit in small quantities. An endocrine disruptor and neurotoxin, the retardants are linked to thyroid disorders and reproductive problems in animals and humans. By 2007, at least three states had enacted legislation outlawing their use, and the federal government asked for a voluntary phase-out across the country. The problem was that no one knew what would replace them. There weren't a lot of good options.

Why do we need flame retardants in the first place, you might ask? The first answer is that we build and then fill our homes with highly flammable petroleum products—plastics, finishes, and polyurethane foam, sometimes known as "solid gasoline." The second answer is that manufacturers make gobs of money selling flame retardants, and they've successfully lobbied for laws that mandate them. California passed a law in the mid-1970s requiring furniture to resist ignition for 12 seconds in tests with open flames and smoldering cigarettes.

The state law was well-intentioned, but many experts don't believe it's been very effective in saving lives. The flame retardants that meet California's standard only delay the ignition of a fire by a few seconds. But when the furniture does burn, stand back. "It takes several seconds longer to burn but generates five times the carbon monoxide and eight times the smoke. That's what kills people, so it's possibly more dangerous with it than without," says Arlene Blum, a chemist and executive director of the Green Policy Science Institute in Berkeley. (A bit more on flame retardants at the end of this New Yorker article by Jerome Groopman.)

Because national furniture makers want to sell to Californians, we're all sitting on flame retardants whichever state we live in. Americans, and Californians especially, have the highest blood and milk levels of flame retardants of anyone in the world. By a lot. We'd be better off with furniture made from wool and goose down. But as of yet, Ikea isn't offering any.

So what is in Ikea's couches? I wanted to know. For one thing, I'd already passed the 90-day-return mark on my couch, and even if I hadn't, I wasn't about to deconstruct it back into a flat box. After opening all the windows on a frigid night, and shivering and gagging through the last bit of assembly, I stumbled upstairs to canvass the Internet. Plenty of other Ikea customers were also unhappy with the smell of their futons. On a site called Green Living Q & A, people vented. One pathetic guy named Keith from New York said his couch had become "like Kryptonite" to him, causing him so much anxiety that his girlfriend left him.

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