Arlene Blum and I are standing in an upscale furniture store in Berkeley. The showroom is full of brightly colored chairs and couches in purple, grey, and blue and upholstered with whimsical patterns and elegant modern lines.
Blum is the Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute, an independent research group that studies the chemicals used in household products. She’s a former chemist at UC Berkeley, where in the 1970s she studied flame retardants, including one called Tris that appeared to change DNA, and possibly caused cancer. Blum’s work got these chemicals removed from children’s pajamas, where they were commonly used at the time. Now, she’s trying to get them out of furniture.
“There we go, lets look at this nice chair,” Blum says, examining an item in the furniture showroom. “It says this article meets the flammability requirements of the California Bureau of Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117.”
Blum is tall, with long grey hair. Most of the time, she has a big smile on her face. When she looks around this store, however, she isn’t smiling. The chair she’s examining is covered with dark purple fabric and is filled with either Firemaster or chlorinated Tris. Both chemicals are toxic. What’s worse, Blum says, they don’t actually stop fires.
“Basically, the chemicals, the way they’re used in furniture, do not help,” says Blum.
While there are high enough amounts of chemicals to make us sick, she says, there are not enough to actually stop a fire:
“If you wanted the chemicals to work against a small open flame, your chair would have to be about 50 percent flame retardants. If your chair was about 50 percent flame retardants, it wouldn’t be very comfortable and the potential health effects would be really serious.”
Currently, California furniture makers are required to use chemical flame retardants in their products. State law requires foam in couches to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds. Chemical flame retardants help our furniture pass that test, but once a fire sets in, they stop working. The rest of the country uses these same standards, because California is a huge market and they want to sell products here too. California Senator Leno is trying to change those standards.
“The way it’s written now, manufacturers have virtually no alternative but to pour these very dangerous chemicals into their products, which means that consumers have no choice but to purchase products with these chemicals in them,” Leno said at a press conference in 2011.
The revised standards will still require furniture to be fire safe, but will result in a new test. Now only the outside of furniture has to withstand a smoldering flame, such as a cigarette. Cigarettes are common causes of house fires, but the likelihood that they’ll come in contact with exposed furniture foam is low. Since manufacturers won’t need to spend money on another chemical, they probably won’t use them.
The health risks of flame retardants is widely recognized and the proposed changes are supported by nearly everyone, including furniture makers, the foam industry, medical associations, California politicians and even firefighters who are exposed to high levels of chemicals in smoke. Groups including the North American Fire Retardant Alliance oppose changing the standard, as does Connecticut-based chemical company Chemtura, which manufactures the flame retardants. Chemtura wasn’t willing to be interviewed, but Communications Manager John Gustavsen offered this statement:
“By taking this action the Bureau is setting back fire-safety in California. We will be disappointed if this misguided proposal to lower fire-safety standards actually becomes law. Efforts to eliminate the open-flame standard are in direct opposition to the views of Californians and independent fire-safety experts who support strict flammability standards which have been proven to prevent fires and save lives.”
After leaving the furniture store with Arlene Blum, I head back to my house and look at my own couch. It’s tan with flecks of gold and probably came from a thrift shop. It even has a way of sending up puffs of dust when I sit on it. Sure enough, under the cushion is a TB 117 tag.
Even if the standards change, old, chemical-filled couches like mine will still be around. So, how bad is that dust inside? And is there something I can do to avoid it?
Ami Zota is a Postdoctoral Scholar who studies reproductive health at UC San Francisco. She’s been studying chemical flame retardants since 2007.
“Studies on brain cells and studies on animal populations and populations of California kids have shown that these chemicals affect the way the brain develops even leading to reduced IQ points,” says Zota.
Zota and Blum agree that these chemicals have been linked to increased obesity and anxiety, low birth weights in children and reduced fertility in adults. Zota says there are other long-term effects too:
“These chemicals persist in our bodies for like a decade. They persist in the environment, in our waterways, they end up in the arctic, in the northern countries, and we end up having to deal with the ramifications of these harmful chemicals for many years to come.”
In 2009, a U.N. convention listed several chemical flame retardants as “persistent organic pollutants.” The flame retardants used today are in the same family, but we know considerably less about them and regardless, both generations of chemicals are still all around us in our daily lives.
“There are some things you can do,” Zota explained. “You can wash your hands frequently, you can try to be more vigilant about the way you clean to reduce dust, you can try to buy certain products that would have less of these chemicals, but this is a problem that requires collective action, you can’t shop your way out of this problem or you can’t clean your way out of this problem because you’re not in control of so many of the environments that you exist in.”
At my own house, I looked at my couch, my office chair, my mattress, and my rug all of which have TB 117 tags. Even though I know Zota is right, I decided it might be a good time to start dusting.
Correction: The original version of this story stated that only the company Chemtura opposed the standards changes. The North American Fire Retardant Alliance is also opposed to the change. Two other groups, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Fire Protection Agency, advocate a continued review of the state’s standards.