Anyone who watched television footage of Lexington during last year’s Final Four knows that if you try hard enough, couches can burn. But because of a California state law requiring the inclusion of flame retardants, most are made with some chemicals designed to slow burning down. And a new analysis of couch cushions from around the country shows that several toxic or carcinogenic chemicals are still common ingredients in most couches.
The study was led by researchers at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. They analyzed 102 samples from couches across the country and found that 41 percent included chlorinated Tris, a chemical that was banned from children’s pajamas in 1977 because it’s a suspected human carcinogen. Seventeen percent included pentaBDE, which was voluntarily phased out by many companies in 2004 and banned around the world (but not in the United States). PentaBDE bioaccumulates in tissue and can be toxic.
Kentucky Environmental Foundation Director Elizabeth Crowe says on average, these flame retardants save three seconds of time in a house fire, and are less necessary as fewer people smoke at home and more people have smoke detectors. Her couch tested positive for chlorinated tris.
“It just seems completely illogical to me that we all have this cancer-causing chemical in our couches and really are getting none of the supposed benefits of flame retardants," she said.
Crowe says couches with polyester fiberfill—as opposed to polyurethane foam—are less likely to contain these flame retardants. It’s also possible to cut down on contaminated couch dust by frequently vacuuming couches.
The Chicago Tribune looked into the use of flame retardants in household products earlier this year, and uncovered the prevalence of toxic chemicals and industry deception that overstated the benefits. A 2011 study, also lead by Duke researchers, found chlorinated Tris was a common ingredient in baby products that use polyurethane foam, including car seats and high chairs.
According to USA Today:
The American Chemistry Council, a group representing chemical manufacturers, said in a statement that "there is no data in this study that indicates that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems."
The group says flame retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards. It cites a recent analysis by one of its technical advisers showing their use in upholstered furniture can provide valuable escape time.
The study is being promoted by groups that are advocating the Consumer Product Safety Commission ban toxic chemicals in furniture, and that Congress pass the Safe Chemicals Act.