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Studies probe links between furniture, toxic FR chemicals

HIGH POINT — Two studies released this week begin to provide answers to longstanding questions about how widespread some toxic flame retardants are in homes.

In one study, Duke University and University of California researchers aimed to find out which flame retardant chemicals were used in foam to meet California's TB 117 upholstered furniture flammability standard.

"Our study suggests that approximately 50% of the residential couches in use by average Americans are treated with TDCPP, indicating that a large percentage of the population may have increased cancer risks due to exposure to TDCPP treated furniture," the Duke/Cal study said.

The study also aimed at which flame retardants are most common since the phasing out of two toxic and environmentally persistent PBDEs in 2005, known as the Penta and Octa mixtures. A remaining mixture, Deca, is being phased out this month, the study said.

The American Home Furnishings Alliance released a position statement saying it was not aware of any evidence - and there were none in the study - linking the level of flame retardants typically found in home furnishings to human health problems.

AHFA officials also noted the organization was incorrectly quoted in stories yesterday reporting declines in upholstered furniture fires to flame retardant chemicals.

The AHFA attributes the decline in fires to compliance with the voluntary UFAC standard; fewer smokers; increased use of residential smoke detectors; and more recently development of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes.

The Duke/Cal study detected chemical flame retardants in 85% of the 102 sofas it sampled. Researchers tested polyurethane foam from sofas purchased in the U.S. between 1985 and 2010. Of the pre-2005 sofas tested, 38% had PentaBDE and 24% contained TDCPP, or tris phosphate.

A new Proposition 65 labeling requirement in California for upholstered furniture containing TDCPP in its foam cushioning took effect Oct. 28. Under the law, chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity must be listed.

The study also found that in pre-2005 couches, about 24% of the sample contained no trace of any flame retardant, which could indicate that some manufacturers were not producing furniture to meet TB 117.

In samples purchased in 2005 or later the most common FR substances were TDCPP in 52% and components associated with a Firemaster550 mixture in 18%.

The study found that since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of TDCPP increased significantly. A mixture of TDCPP and another chemical was observed in 13% of the couch samples purchased in 2005 or later.

The study recommends health studies on a number of alternative flame retardant chemicals that came on the market after the PentaBDE phase out. In its position statement, the AHFA agreed that additional research should be conducted on chemicals currently used as flame retardants.

A second study by the Silent Spring Institute tested California homes, finding that most had levels of at least one flame retardant that exceeded a federal health guideline in household dust, a main route of exposure for adults and children - especially infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor.

In testing for 49 flame retardants, the study found 36 chemicals in at least 50% of the samples, some at levels of health concern.

Flame retardants found in the dust are used in furniture, textiles, electronics, and other products. In the Silent Spring study, highest concentrations were found for chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants.

"Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day," Dr. Robin Dodson, a co-author of the study and a Silent Spring, said in a press release. "It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe."

The Silent Spring study said there is a need to modernize U.S. chemical policies to require more complete disclosure and safety testing of chemicals used in consumer product prior to sale.

California is currently revising its decades-old rule governing flame retardants known as TB-117. Over time, the rule became a de facto national standard. Separately, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission continues to work on a national standard for upholstery flammability.

The studies prompted a broad coalition of groups last week to continue calling for decreased influence by the chemical industry in regulations; better analysis of fire safety benefits; removal of toxic chemicals from upholstery; better labeling; reform of federal chemical testing; and ensuring that current toxic FR chemicals aren't replaced with other toxic chemicals.

Officials with the Sustainable Furnishings Council and the Specialty Sleep Assn. urged improved regulation of chemicals to support public health.

"The chemical industry shouldn't be able to market chemicals to manufacturers and retailers unless we know beyond a reasonable doubt that they are safe. They make the chemicals, they should be held responsible," Susan Inglis, executive director of the SFC, said in a press release.

"Business should be encouraged to reject hazardous chemicals and instead innovate and create safer chemicals and products," she said.

The Specialty Sleep Assn. encouraged manufacturers to embrace responsible sourcing and sound manufacturing practices. Manufacturers should offer healthy, environmentally sound, fire resistant options to consumers that are truthfully marketed to consumers, SSA President Dale Read said in a release.

"Savvy, aware consumers will demand to know what is inside their upholstered furniture and mattresses. They will push the industry and their supply sources to protect the safety, health and well-being of the consumer," Read said.

Dr. Arlene Blum, a co-author of the Duke/Cal study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, said in a press release this week that 35 years after chlorinated tris was removed from children's sleepwear, more than more than a third of American sofas contain the same toxic flame retardant.

"And sadly enough, many Americans could now have increased cancer risks from the chlorinated tris in their furniture," Blum said.

The Duke-Cal study is available online at, while the Silent Spring Institute study is at

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