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?

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.

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.)

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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