How Flame Retardant are American Breasts?

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Unfortunately, a lot more than European women’s. Hopefully that will change soon.

How flame retardants go from foam to you. Courtesy: Green Science Policy Institute.
How flame retardants go from foam to you. Courtesy: Green Science Policy Institute.

The story of toxic flame retardants is soaked in good intentions gone wrong. Thankfully, though, a “big deal” California regulation just kicked in and flame retardant chemicals will slowly be eliminated from U.S. consumer foam products.

It’s smart to know about the California regulation “TB117-2013” and what it means for your family’s health and why you should look for this label when buying new furniture, baby products and carpet cushions, to name a few. Plus, we’ll also offer tips on what to do with your old furniture products. Older foam products were likely doused in unhealthy flame retardants that have accumulated in all of our bodies. Even in the tatas.

Regulation with good intention

With loads of smokers in the 1970s, there were more deadly house fires. In 1975, the same year that home smoke detectors hit the market, California created flammability standards (TB 117) for kids’ sleepwear, furniture and foam products. This regulation forced manufacturers to include chemical flame retardants in the foam material. Retardants could weigh as much as 30 percent of product. California’s rule became the country’s de facto flammability standards because manufacturers could not make different products for different states.

As pointed out in our earlier Beneath the Surface articles, chemicals are unregulated. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) doesn’t require manufactures to test new chemicals prior to market launch. Plus, all of the 62,000 chemicals in use prior to 1976 were grandfathered and deemed safe.  On Tuesday, a bipartisan TSCA bill named for the deceased Senator Frank R. Lautenberg was introduced. Senator Launtenberg championed the fight for years to improve chemical regulations. We’ll dive into this new legislation in another post. Good or bad? We shall see.

Flame Retardant Chemistry 101

A little flame retardant chemistry is good to know because flame retardants are in your furniture and most likely in you.

After the first batch of “tris” retardants was found to be carcinogenic in 1977, manufacturers quickly switched to a flame retardant compounds called “polybrominated diphenyl ethers,” or PBDEs.  Since PBDEs don’t chemically bind to foam, the chemicals migrate into your home as dust and into the air, even waterways, and lastly into people. PBDEs are everywhere and the chemical has bioaccumulated in everyone. Since PBDEs are fat-soluble and stored in fat and breast milk, babies are exposed to PBDEs via breast milk. Essentially, the safety of flame retardants is a living science experiment.

Ubiquitous PBDEs make people sick

And the experiment went awry as scientific research started pouring in, revealing flame retardants were: hormone disrupting, carcinogenic, causing low birth rates, causing lower IQ scores, and were increasing rates of cancers in firefighters. 

(This is where you may start getting mad…) According to McKay Jenkins’ book, What’s Gotten into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, European countries pulled flame retardants long before any U.S. response. Swedish scientists sounded the flame retardant alarm and the country quickly banned PBDEs in 1999. Between 1997 and 2000, PBDEs dropped 30 percent in Swedish mothers’ breast milk.  Yet, American manufacturers continued using PBDEs until the rest of Europe finally banned them in 2004.

But, American firms switched to other untested flame retardants. The problem was California’s TB117 was still on the books. Adding fuel to the fire, it turns out that smoke detectors and smolder-free fabrics protect people in house fires, not retardant-soaked foam inserts. This whole story didn’t need to happen.

9 long and stupid years later…

It took nine years after Europe banned flame retardants for California’s flammable standards to change. Rock star scientists like Arlene Blum never stopped studying and advocating for flame retardant elimination. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune launched a searing investigative series into flame retardants. Based on this reporting, HBO created the documentary Toxic Hot Seat, which exposed the hard fight flame retardant producers launched to keep retardants in use.

TB117-2013 was signed into law in 2013 by Governor Brown and took effect January 1, 2015. The law does not require flame retardants, but instead requires smolder-proof fabric. TB117-2013 also legislated a new labeling system that alerts consumers that the product contains no flame retardants. Effectively, TB117-2013 stopped the use of flame retardants because manufacturers aren’t required to use it. That’s a big deal!

What do I do with old foam products?

Blum, the chemist who has dedicated a good chunk of her career to eliminating flame retardants, offers great steps we can take here in Charm City to reduce our exposure to flame retardants.

Buying new furniture:

1. “Look for furniture tagged with the label TB117-2013. Click here for a how-to-buy guide. If you don’t see this tag, assume the item contains flame retardants.” 

2. Dr. Blum created the Green Science Policy Institute which offers clear consumer advice, including a long list of manufacturers pledging to discontinue retardants.

3. Avoid items with the older TB 117 tag advises Dr. Blum, “It’s a messy transition right now. The TB117-2013 law allows manufacturers to use up their excess flame retardant TB117 inventory. Unless items have the new TB117-2013 label, you may be buying flame retardant soaked goods.”

4. Look for eco-minded manufacturers that built their brands on making quality furniture without toxic retardants. Lee Industries, Cisco Brothers, Hickory Chair and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams are several of the majors in the Sustainable Furnishings Council.  Good reference for other manufacturers.

Older furniture and baby products:

1. Clean and dust often, vacuum with a HEPA filter, open windows and be mindful that flame retardant chemicals are in your home’s dust. Just one more reason kids should wash their hands before eating.

2. Blum advises, “This is one action that is tough, but if you own furniture with foam purchased after 1975, consider replacing the foam inserts. Especially furniture your children use.”  Click here for an online foam retailer.

3. Foam disposal is tricky, too. Dumping furniture in the landfill means the flame retardants are released into the environment. Because this problem is so new, Baltimore doesn’t have a foam recycling program. Bag the foam for now and wait for a program.

This article is part of the year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products.  Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. Articles in the series:

How green is your mani-pedi?

Big Fish: Getting Smart about Chemicals with Baltimore’s Toxin Guru McKay Jenkins

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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1 COMMENT

  1. Good practical info for those of us concerned with daily family health within our household. Trying to figure out foam disposal issue…

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