Flame Retardants in Your Sofa: Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

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The average-sized couch contains up to two pounds of flame retardant chemicals. (Frank Jania: Flickr)
The average-sized couch contains up to two pounds of flame retardant chemicals. (Frank Jania: Flickr)

Back in 1975, a pioneering law was passed to help prevent upholstered furniture from burning, as KQED's Amy Standen reports. Technical Bulletin 117-- or TB 117 as it's known -- is now the regret of many scientists. Call it the law of unintended consequences. From Standen's post:

Manufacturers meet this law by treating the foam with several different kinds of chemicals, up to two pounds of flame retardant chemicals in an average-size sofa, according to Don Lucas, a flammability expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Even though the law is specific to California, it affects furniture sold across the country. Major furniture dealers sell California-compliant products in all 50 states, and Canada.

The problem ... is that the chemicals don’t just stay inside the sofas. They turn up in household dust and can be detected in human blood and breast milkToddlers often have higher levels of the chemicals in their bodies than adults do.

"One study found that the levels of PBDEs found in bodies of toddlers are similar to what you'd find in people who work in a recycling foam factory. That's two to ten times what you'd find in adults," says Ami Zota, a researcher with UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.


Standen has plenty more detail about the politics of trying to change this law. But I'm trying to stay focused on the health aspects of her piece. Suffice it to say that legislators have tried to change the law five times. Five times they have failed.

To me, the most jaw-dropping part of Standen's piece is that the chemicals don't even prevent fires.

“Our conclusions were that we really don’t need the flame retardants in the foam in home furnishing," said Lucas. We don’t think the TB 117 standard is very good.”

The chemicals don’t work, he says, because fires don’t start inside sofas. They start on the surface of the sofa, on the fabric. California's flammability law, TB 117 law says nothing about the fabric, just the foam.

“Once the fabric catches on fire, the flame that the foam is exposed to is much larger than the flame in the test,” says Lucas.

So, now we have chemically-drenched foam on fire, and the anti-flame retardant folks have a new ally: firefighters.

Tom O’Connor, a firefighter in San Francisco, says fires these days are a toxic soup of chemicals, thanks, in part, to chemically-treated furniture.

O'Connor, and others, believe they're seeing an epidemic of cancers among firefighters. San Francisco's Fire Department is one of several around the country participating in a study of firefighters and cancer run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

If flame-retardant chemicals in furniture are part of the problem, says O'Connor, "then obviously we want them out of the products of combustion, once we go into a burning building."

You can read or listen to Amy's complete story here.