By Jackie Lombardo, SafeMinds board member
Flame retardants. Sound like a great concept, eh? Only, there seems to be problem…
When renowned scientist Arlene Blum’s cat Midnight was diagnosed with thyroid disease in 2007, she was eager to find out the cause. A mountaineer and motivational speaker, Blum also had a doctorate in biophysical chemistry and had been researching the effect of chemicals, particularly flame retardants, on human health for many years. Feline hyperthyroidism, virtually unknown in cats until the late 1970s, is now one of the most common feline endocrine disorders. So Blum sent Midnight’s blood to a lab for testing. Sure enough, the testing showed that the cat’s blood had an abnormally high concentration of flame retardants.
The flame retardants found in Midnight’s blood were the same ones Arlene Blum had found in the cushions on her couch, and the same ones also linked to hyperthyroidism.
The idea behind adding chemical flame retardants to foam is to make furniture resistant to fire. But since foam is so easy to ignite, a surprisingly large amount of chemicals must be added. Different chemical flame retardants, often without adequate safety testing, have been added to furniture and other consumer products since the 1920s.
This wouldn’t be a problem, necessarily, if the chemicals stayed put.
Particles of flame retardant chemicals are not bound to the foam, and so they’re released into the air in our homes and end up in the dust bunnies on our floor. Frankly they’ve been found everywhere—not only in our pets, but also in wild animals like Peregrine falcons as well as in the blood of Native people living near the Arctic Circle who have never used or seen polyurethane foam in their lives.
Flame retardant chemicals even make their way into our waterways through home laundry waste water.
Most disturbingly however, flame retardants are contaminating our children; especially small children.
Every toddler tested by Duke University researchers was found to have flame retardants in their blood. Babies and young children, and pregnant women, are the most susceptible: children are smaller than adults making them more vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. They play on the floor, crawl under the couch, swipe at dust bunnies, and despite our best efforts, yup, they put their hands and the dust on them into their mouths.
And I know you don’t want to read this because I don’t want to write this, but even newborns have flame retardants in their tiny bodies on the first day of birth leading some scientists to say that American babies today are born “pre-polluted”.
The health problems flame retardants have been associated with include:
- Difficulty conceiving
- Endocrine disruption
- Adrenal dysfunction (thyroid problems)
In children, flame retardants are also associated with developmental problems and neurological deficits including Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I first became concerned about man-made chemicals and their possible harm to human health when my own son became environmentally ill. He was overexposed to toxicants in consumer products in his environment, which made him sick. It was exhausting, and terrifying honestly, to educate myself—with the help of my son’s doctors—about the everyday toxicants that may have contributed to his persistent health issues. We reduced the chemicals in our home to stop repeated exposures to lower his body burden of chemicals, and ours as well.
We know now that beginning even before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that can harm growth and development. We all have a liver, thank goodness, but we only have one. Our liver’s main purpose is to get rid of the toxicants occurring naturally in the environment – it can even handle some man-made toxicants. However, the problem—especially for the unborn, babies, and children—is repeated exposure to chemicals that accumulate causing our bodies to become overloaded. And then we get sick.
I don’t want you to feel exhausted or be terrified.
My wish for you is that you have the knowledge you need to make better, healthier choices than I did when my children were small.
I want you to keep your house non-toxic and healthy from the get go. Not perfect. Just better.
So how DO you buy a healthy couch? A few ways:
- If you buy new, avoid furniture with foam cushions with this tag on the bottom: “This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117.” That tag tells you the foam most definitely contains flame retardants, like nearly all furniture with foam cushions made in the last few decades. The weight of the chemical flame retardants can be as much as 20 percent of the polyurethane foam cushion’s weight.
- Look for a manufacturer that uses flame retardant-free foam. There are options available now including at the previous hyperlink. Google is your friend.
- If money is not an obstacle, you can buy a couch with pillows filled with natural fibers like wool or down. These are crazy expensive though, upwards of $6,000.00 (I know. Right?)
- Buy a NEW couch manufactured in California. You can find one in most any state now. Ironically, it was a California state law that led manufacturers across the country to soak foam with flame retardants (see #1) but now California is leading the way in taking harmful flame retardant chemicals out of polyurethane foam.
- Futon couches, like the kinds often used in Japan, are a great and healthy option. They are often inexpensive (though if you want to buy one made with organic cotton they can get pricey) and are easy to find second hand. This may be your best option.
What if you can’t afford a new couch?
If you can’t afford a new couch:
- Sew up any holes in your couch and cover it: If you can’t get rid of the couch completely, try to contain the dust as best you can. A fitted couch cover is the top choice, but any cover, even loose, is better than none.
- Go couch free: That’s what Arlene Blum did for several years, after throwing away her penta-treated couch.
- Replace the old foam in your favorite furniture with flame retardant-free foam: This was what we finally did. We ordered flame retardant-free foam from FoamOrder.com. They answered my questions (basically, are you sure the foam has no flame retardants?), and walked me through how much I would need to replace the foam on my couch and chairs. Then I hired a local upholster to do the sewing for me. It wasn’t cheap, but it was less expensive than buying a new couch.
- Vacuum carpeting often with a HEPA vacuum, mop dust up with a wet mop, and wash, wash, wash your baby’s hands with non-toxic soap. Keeping chemical dust to a minimum really helps.
People across the country are listening to the science. Several states, in addition to California, are considering legislation to remove harmful flame retardant chemicals from polyurethane foam. There are also international efforts at banning the manufacture and use of the worst of the worst flame retardant chemicals under the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Treaty.
So don’t feel overwhelmed.
You’re not alone.
You can take action to make your life safer, less toxic, and better.
And then read some more.
Especially the ingredients in all consumer products.
Read the ingredients before you put anything in or on your child’s body.
Stopping autism starts with you. And me. And all of us.
There are safe alternatives. And safe ways to preserve and protect our children’s health.
Get out your couch patching kit or dispose of your old couch responsibly.
Is worrying about your couch and seeking a healthy one really worth the trouble?
I think so. And Arlene Blum would agree.
Jackie Lombardo is a SafeMinds board member and a mother of three with a keen interest in children’s environmental health. As a member of the Sierra Club National Toxics Committee, she has been involved in national projects stressing education, precaution and strong legislation for mercury, bisphenol A, pesticides, and lead in children’s products. With a strong belief that children’s health can be improved through public policy promoting a cleaner and safer environment, she remains confident proper legislation will reverse the tragic decline in children’s health.