Study: Flame Retardant Chemicals Found in House Dust, Sofas

A new study has found that people may be breathing dangerous toxins from common household items, such as their electronics and upholstered furniture, to name just two.

Researchers from Silent Spring Institute, an environmental research group, discovered possibly dangerous levels of a number of flame retardants in the dust from many of the homes they examined, said WebMD. Some chemicals discovered in the highest levels in the dust studied were chemicals removed from children’s sleepwear in the late 1970s, based on prior research that was conducted, for the most part, by University of California chemist Arlene Blum, PhD.

In a different, recent study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University, discovered that the vast majority—85 percent—of the sofas they tested had been treated with flame retardants, the most prevalent being the chemical Blum identified as cancer causing—chlorinated Tris—in her prior research, said WebMD. Both studies now appear 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,” Blum, 67, told WebMD. Blum is a mountaineer and an environmental health scientist who was the first American woman to attempt to climb Mount Everest and who led the first women’s climbing team up Annapurna I, WebMD noted.

Some 30 years after chlorinated Tris was removed from children’s pajamas, Blum found Tris was one of the most popularly used flame retardants in foam upholstery. For the current study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University tested 102 couches for flame retardant chemicals, said WebMD, finding that most were treated with chemical flame retardants that were either known toxins or for which health data was lacking. Many chemicals tested were linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and learning problems, based on prior animal and human studies, Blum told WebMD.

The other study, led by Silent Spring research scientist Robin E. Dodson, ScD, revealed that dust collected from most of the California homes involved in their research in both 2006 and 2011 contained levels of at least one flame retardant chemical that exceeded federal health guidelines, said WebMD. Household dust from 16 California homes was tested for flame retardants used in insulation, upholstered furniture, carpeting and padding, children’s and baby items, and electronics.

As we’ve written, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that indoor air pollution is among the top environmental threats to public health given that Americans spend about 90 percent of their time inside.

We previously wrote that another study revealed that a staggering 80 percent of all baby products contain flame retardants that are either toxic or untested. That study indicated that car seats, changing pads, and portable cribs were among the items tested, and that nursing pillows were also tested and found to contain chlorinated Tris, which raised what the EPA described as a “moderate level of concern” over cancer links and issues with developmental, reproductive, and other health issues. In fact, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) spokesman, Scott Wolfson, previously told USA Today that that Tris “may pose a significant health risk.”

Toxins are a cheap way in which manufacturers in California are able to comply with that state’s stringent fire safety rules; other manufacturers have followed suit, mimicking California’s practices. Blum noted that the toxins are likely harming us in the absence of fire and may not be doing much to protect us in the event of a fire, said WebMD.

Fire safety scientist, Vytenis Babrauskas, whose research was used to advance flame retardant use in upholstery foam, says the research was skewed by the chemical industry to suggest that the chemicals are much more flame resistant in foam products than they are and that the chemicals are safe when they do flame, said WebMD. According to Babrauskas, there is no need for fire retardants in either building insulation or upholstery foam.

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