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We don’t often think of our homes as a toxic zone. But the truth is, they contain a ton of chemicals emitted by everything from the cleaners we use to the rugs covering the floors and curtains covering the windows to the upholstered furniture we sit on every day.
A piece of furniture you likely sit on every day was the subject of a recent study indicating that replacing it with an updated model can go a long way to reducing the level of toxins in your home…
Flame retardants and your couch
Researchers have discovered that when people ditch their old couch for a new one with no added flame retardants, it greatly reduces the levels of the harmful chemicals in household dust. And if you don’t want to get rid of your current couch, replacing the foam inside its cushions is just as effective at lowering those toxins.
These findings confirm that having flame-retardant-free furniture in your home can really help reduce adult’s and children’s everyday exposure to these toxic chemicals.
“We’ve long suspected that couches are a major source of toxic chemicals in dust,” says lead author Kathryn Rodgers, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “Now, for the first time, we have evidence demonstrating the positive impacts of replacing old furniture containing flame retardants.”
As is the case with a lot of the chemicals in household objects, flame retardants can transfer out of furniture and into air and dust, and from there end up in people’s bodies. Exposure to flame retardant chemicals has been linked with cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, lower IQ and other harmful health issues. Infants and young children are especially at risk when they crawl and play on the floor, where contaminated dust settles, and put their hands in their mouths.
The use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture in the United States is about to be updated to California’s flammability standard. Enacted in 2014, this standard is designed to stop smoldering fires in the furniture’s fabric before they reach the flammable foam inside, eliminating the need to add flame retardants to the foam. This allows manufacturers to make furniture free of flame retardants.
Beginning June 25, a new federal law requires all upholstered furniture imported or sold in the United States to comply with California’s flammability standard for upholstered furniture.
Some flame retardants reduced more than others
To determine the impact of the California standard on home toxicity, researchers studied participants from 33 homes in Northern California who agreed to swap out their old furniture for options free of flame retardants. About two-thirds replaced their entire upholstered couch, while the rest replaced their couch’s foam.
The team collected dust samples from each home before the swap, then several times afterward over a period of 18 months. After the first six months, concentrations of flame retardants in the samples dropped significantly, and most remained lower a year after the furniture was replaced. The same declines were seen in the homes where just the foam was replaced as in the homes where the occupants got an entirely new couch.
Of the seven types of flame retardants researchers tested for, two in particular — PBDEs and TPHP — decreased the most. The drop in PBDE levels wasn’t a surprise, given how widespread their use is in furniture that met the old standard.
In animal studies, PBDEs have shown negative impacts on the thyroid, liver and brain development. TPHP can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin and affect the liver and kidneys.
Researchers also observed a decrease in chlorinated OPFRs, but the declines were not as sustained over time, likely because the flame retardants are used in other products including textiles, plastics, adhesives and rubber. OPFRs are structurally similar to neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides, so there are concerns these flame retardants can have the same toxic effects on development, reproduction and the endocrine system (think thyroid and pancreatic cancer).
While removing flame retardants from furniture is going well, the global market for these chemicals continues to expand because manufacturers are increasing their use of flame retardants in other types of consumer products. “The findings from the new study should spur state and federal policymakers to reduce other harmful and ineffective uses of flame retardants in other items such as television cases and building insulation,” says co-author Arlene Blum, executive director of Green Science Policy Institute.
Eliminating toxic furniture in your home
Furniture can last for many years, so it’s possible you still have furniture in your home that meets the old standard and contains flame retardants. Since replacing furniture can be expensive, it may not be an option for everyone. Replacing the foam in your existing couch with foam that’s free of flame retardants can be more cost-effective. You can do the replacement yourself by contacting a local foam supplier and asking for foam with no added flame retardants. Or you can contact a furniture upholsterer and have them replace the foam for you.
Beyond replacing your couch, keeping your home as dust-free as possible can also help lower your home’s chemical content. Ms. Rodgers recommends using a strong vacuum with a motorized brush and HEPA filter and wiping surfaces often with a wet cloth or mop. Also, make sure to fix any rips in your furniture’s fabric so that the foam isn’t exposed. Finally, try to regularly wash your own hands, as well as those of your children to keep their hands from being contaminated by household dust.
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Want a healthier home? Start with your couch — Silent Spring Institute
Do flame retardant concentrations change in dust after older upholstered furniture is replaced? — Environment International
Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) Factsheet — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet — New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services
A Review of a Class of Emerging Contaminants: The Classification, Distribution, Intensity of Consumption, Synthesis Routes, Environmental Effects and Expectation of Pollution Abatement to Organophosphate Flame Retardants (OPFRs) — International Journal of Molecular Sciences