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Women's Health

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Flame Retardant Chemicals in House Dust, Sofas

Flame Retardants: Pajamas to Couches continued...

In the other newly reported study, led by Silent Spring research scientist Robin E. Dodson, ScD, researchers found that dust from most of the California homes they tested in 2006 and again in 2011 had levels of at least one flame retardant chemical that exceeded federal health guidelines.

The researchers tested household dust from 16 California homes for flame retardants used in products that included home insulation, upholstered furniture, carpeting and carpet padding, children’s and baby items, and electronics.

Babies and toddlers are thought to be particularly vulnerable to toxins in household dust, Dodson says, because they crawl on floors and furniture and frequently have their hands in their mouths.

Decreased levels were found in three homes where homeowners reported remodeling, installing new flooring, or buying new furniture after 2005. The researchers note that this is most likely due to bans of some of these chemicals.

California’s 12-Second Rule

Blum and Dodson say California’s furniture flammability standards -- the strictest in the nation -- have led to an increase in exposures to flame retardant chemicals nationwide.

California law requires that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand a small flame like a candle for at least 12 seconds without igniting.

This is done by adding large amounts of flame retardant chemicals. Since furniture manufacturers typically want to avoid separate inventories for different markets, most of the upholstered goods sold in the U.S. comply with the California standards.

As foam ages, the chemicals escape and circulate in the air, Blum says.

Blum says the irony is that the flame retardants may not only be harming our health in the absence of fire, but they may be doing little to protect us when fires happen.

Flame Retardants May Not Stop Fires

That view is shared by a fire safety scientist whose research was used to promote the use of flame retardants in foam used in upholstered furniture.

Vytenis Babrauskas says the research was distorted by the chemical industry to suggest that flame retardants are far more flame resistant in foam products than they actually are, and that they are safe when they do catch fire.

He says there is no need for fire retardants in building insulation or foams used in upholstered furniture.

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