Your Couch is Toxic: New Study Confirms Fears about Flame Retardants in Furniture

You may be better off standing than sitting on your sofa, particularly if you are a pregnant woman, according to a new study on the dangers of flame retardants in furniture.

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Flame retardants—toxic chemicals soaked into couches and other types of household items, including mattresses and carpet pads, to make them fire resistant—have long been linked with cancer and developmental difficulties. And now a new study, released Monday, offers fresh evidence that those toxins may affect children while they are still in utero, effectively lowering IQs and raising rates of hyperactivity.

“It looks like we have a new study with very concerning results,” Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo! Shine. Though manufacturers no longer use the specific flame retardants tracked in the study—called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs—they remain in pieces of upholstered furniture made before 2005. “Those toxins are highly persistent in the environment and in our bodies,” Janssen said. “And unfortunately, this damage is irreversible. We can’t get those IQ points back.”

Lead researcher Aimin Chen of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine presented the findings Monday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Washington, D.C.

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"In animal studies, PBDEs can disrupt thyroid hormone and cause hyperactivity and learning problems,” Chen said in a press release from the university. "Our study adds to several other human studies to highlight the need to reduce exposure to PBDEs in pregnant women." He added, "Because PBDEs exist in the home and office environment as they are contained in old furniture, carpet pads, foams and electronics, the study raises further concern about their toxicity in developing children.”

To study the results of PBDEs, scientists first collected blood samples from 309 pregnant women early in their second trimester, then tracked children through the first five years, looking at various tests for IQ and behavior. What they found was a frightening correlation: that children of mothers who had high PBDE levels during their second trimester showed cognition deficits at age five, and higher rates of hyperactivity at ages two to five.

Chen’s findings were preliminary, and didn't track the children's PBDE levels once they were born. But they jibe with two recent U.S. studies that showed similar connections, and which did track levels in children. One of them, from the University of California, Berkeley, published last fall in Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at children and PBDE levels through age seven. It showed a relationship between high PBDE exposures in utero and deficits in children’s IQ, fine motor function and attention.

So, although the PBDEs were phased out of manufacturing in 2004, they’re still lurking in old furniture and carpet pads, and their effects settle into dust in your home, where they’ll stay long after your old couch has been discarded and replaced. What’s more, plenty of other flame retardants are still being used in couches and other types of furniture, including chlorinated Tris, which has been found to cause cancer and was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s.

And there have been other scary findings, explained Janssen in a recent blog post for Scientific American: Some studies have found women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies, she wrote. Others have linked flame retardants to male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls. And this is just with the handful of flame retardants that have been tested, she noted, as “the vast majority have never been adequately tested for safety,” because of weaknesses in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

They’re still being used, incidentally, because manufacturers want to comply with a well-intentioned but flawed 40-year-old California law, requiring upholstered furniture to meet strict flammability laws. Though the state law has become the defacto standard for the rest of the country, critics of the regulation point out that fires don’t start in the foam but on the outer covering, oftentimes by cigarettes left smoldering on furniture fabric.

“It’s a whack-a-mole problem,” Janssen explained to Shine, of basically replacing one toxic chemical for another, all because of the California law, which is pretty useless since, she added, “the chemicals don’t even work.”

So how can you minimize the effects of these potentially hazardous chemicals in your immediate environment?

If you are not on a budget, you could discard all of the upholstered furniture in your home and replace it with items purchased from a store or manufacturer (like Ekla Home) that specifically offers furniture that’s free of flame retardants, stuffed with a Polyurethane-foam alternative like wool, cotton or polyester fill.  “Unfortunately,” Janssen said, “those couches are more expensive.”

So, for the vast majority of Americans who are living with a toxic couch, ways of trying to minimize the effects of those toxins in your home include the following, notes Janssen:

•Vacuum often, using an HEPA filter, and wet-mop to reduce buildup of dust in your home
•Dust with a damp cloth or a microfiber cloth (instead of a feather duster) to avoid kicking up dust particles into the air while you clean.
•Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water, since hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a main pathway for exposure.

Additionally, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has the following suggestions:

•Inspect foam-filled furniture items, and replace anything with a ripped cover, or with foam that is misshapen and breaking down (or at least try to keep the covers intact).

•Do not reupholster foam furniture, as even those items without PBDEs might contain poorly studied fire retardants that have potentially harmful effects.

•When removing old carpet with padding that may contain PBDEs, keep your work area sealed off from the rest of your home. Then clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as many of the small particles as possible.

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