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Flame Retardant Chemicals in House Dust, Sofas

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 28, 2012 -- Many people may be breathing in chemical flame retardants that are seeping from their upholstered furniture, electronics, and other common household items, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the environmental research group Silent Spring Institute found potentially unsafe levels of several flame retardants in the dust from a large percentage of the homes they examined.

House Dust Has Flame Retardants

Among the chemicals found in the highest levels in household dust were those banned from children’s pajamas in the late 1970s, largely as a result of research by University of California chemist Arlene Blum, PhD.

In a separate study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University found that 85% of the sofas they tested were treated with flame retardants and the most common one was the chemical Blum identified as a carcinogen decades ago, known as chlorinated Tris.

Both studies were published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“Hard to believe, 35 years after our research contributed to removing Tris from children’s sleepwear, our current study suggests that more than a third of Americans' couches contain the same toxic flame retardant,” she says.

Flame Retardants: Pajamas to Couches

Blum, who is 67, has had a fascinating dual career as a mountaineer and an environmental health scientist.

She was the first American woman to attempt to climb Mount Everest, and she led the first women’s climbing team up Annapurna I.

She says her battle to remove chemical flame retardants from home furnishings has been a different kind of challenge.

Three decades after chlorinated Tris was removed from children’s pajamas, Blum learned that the chemical had become one of the most widely used flame retardants in foam upholstery.

In her new study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University tested 102 couches for flame retardant chemicals.

They found that 85% of the couches were treated with chemical flame retardants that had either been identified as toxic or lacked health data.

Many of the tested chemicals were linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and learning problems in earlier animal and human studies, Blum says.

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.

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