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Chemicals That Prevent Fire, Are They Worth The Risk?

[picture_frame source_type=”url” source_title=”hazardous chemicals” source_value=”” align=”left”] Two new studies highlight the potential dangers of chemicals used to stop products from catching fire — including chemicals linked to cancer and to hormone disruption — that are present in nearly every home in America

Researchers from Duke University, Boston University, and University of California Berkeley took sofa cushions from homes across the U.S. and found that 85% of the cushions tested contained at least one fire preventing chemical in the foam cushioning.

Sofas bought before 2005 were most likely to contain chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were phased out in 2004 because of concerns that they were toxic. The researchers also found tris, an agent known to break up DNA in chromosomes that was banned from children’s sleepwear because of its cancer-causing potential, as well as newer chemicals that are being used as a replacement for PBDEs.  These chemicals were found in half the 102 sofas tested.

It gets worse: out of the sofa and into the air

The second study shows how those chemicals then likely migrate out of furniture and into the air we breathe. Scientists at Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts analyzed household dust in California and found that, in most of the 16 homes tested, there was at least one chemical present at potentially unsafe levels.

“What’s concerning about this is that so many of these chemicals we’re finding are associated with hormone disruption or cancer, or haven’t been tested,” says Robin Dodson, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “It’s worrisome.”

Also present in household dust were chemicals, such as the insecticide DDT, that have been banned for many years for their potential to cause cancer and disrupt reproductive development.

The study authors complain that these newer chemicals have not yet been adequately tested for safety.

Why the prevalence of so many chemicals used to prevent fire? It is not what you think…

The chemicals are present in home furnishings not so much to prevent fire deaths as to comply with a single, little-known California ruling about the combustibility of furniture. As the New York Times Magazine explained in an article earlier this year:

Since 1975, an obscure California agency called the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting. Because foam is highly flammable, the bureau’s regulation, Technical Bulletin 117, can be met only by adding large quantities of chemical flame retardants — usually about 5 to 10 percent of the weight of the foam — at the point of manufacture.

And while that regulation applies only to California, manufacturers decided to apply the regulation to all of their products rather than creating special runs for couches destined for the west coast. The result is furniture that now complies with the policy across the United States.

The irony, according to researchers, is that the chemicals may not actually make us any safer from fire. Fire preventing chemicals that  do help to prevent things from lighting up, however they may simultaneously make a fire more dangerous once it starts, some research suggests. That’s because the fire retardants themselves, once they start burning, produce more smoke, more soot, and more carbon monoxide than foam alone.

Because of the mounting health and environmental evidence against chemical flame retardants, California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, called for a revamping of the state’s rules around furniture flammability, which may be a first step toward addressing the widespread presence of the chemicals in American homes. Still, environmentalists argue that it likely won’t get dangerous toxins out of our living rooms any time soon.

In the meantime, replacing older couches with newer ones, vacuuming with a HEPA filter and wet-mopping to thoroughly remove dust can reduce exposure to stubborn particulates that may have migrated from treated furniture.  Hand-washing is also important, particularly for small children who spend a lot of time on the floor.

These studies were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technolog.



Principal & Founder
This article was written by Mark Sadaka, a seasoned trial lawyer in nationally significant cases. He fearlessly champions clients impacted by fatal or severe injuries caused by others or corporations. Renowned for his expertise in complex litigation, he's featured in books, sought after by media for interviews, and a highly sought speaker. Notably, he exclusively represents individuals facing life-changing injuries or substantial financial losses.

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