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Research: Toxic chemicals in your living room
November 28th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

Research: Toxic chemicals in your living room

Could the couch in your living room be toxic? Some scientists say yes.

A study in this week’s Environmental Science and Technology journal measured just how many toxic flame-retardant chemicals are in our furniture.

Researchers found that 85% of couches contained some combination of flame retardant chemicals in their cushion foam. Aside from upholstered furniture, flame retardant chemicals can also be found in car seats and nursing pillows, or any other product that has polyurethane foam. In addition, it can be used in carpeting and electronics.

Research has linked the chemicals to reproductive problems and low birth weights, as well as neurological and developmental issues in children. Other studies have found these chemicals to be associated with hormone imbalances and possibly cancer.

However, the American Chemistry Council pointed out in a statement that such chemicals are beneficial. "Flame retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards, and are designed to prevent fires from starting and if a fire does occur, slow its spread and provide valuable escape time."

"This study confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives," the chemistry council said. "There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems."

The couch study was the first large-scale survey of its kind, investigating the foam inside 102 couches from across the United States.

Researchers say that most couches have flame retardants in their cushion and pillow foam in order to meet a California flammability standard, known as TB 117, that requires the foam to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds.

Couches that meet the standard have a label that clearly states it meets the California standard. However, manufacturers are not required to label if they do use the flame retardant chemicals.

Even if there is no TB 117 label, the study found that couches are still likely to have them. In fact, 64% of couches with no TB 117 label were still found to have flame retardants in them.

Study author and chemist Arlene Blum explained, “The government makes rules that certain standards have to be met, and they don’t say how to meet them, but often the least expensive way to meet them is with certain flame retardants, such as Penta and Tris.”

In fact, the chemical Tris was actually the most commonly found flame retardant in couches despite the fact that Tris is listed as a carcinogen in California, and was banned from children’s pajamas in 1977 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The next most commonly found chemicals in couches are known as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, or PBDEs. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently investigating PBDE’s because of their concern to human and environmental health.

In fact, the hazards are such a concern that U.S. manufacturers voluntarily began phasing out some PBDEs beginning in 2004. However, manufacturers have since replaced them with other fire-retardant chemicals.

According to the EPA, “PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, foam, fabrics, or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out of these products.”


soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Er

    Everything is bad for you. RUN!!!!

    November 28, 2012 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sam

      Can't. Running is bad for my knees. Can we walk briskly, instead?

      November 28, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse |
    • Permission Granted

      Yes Sam, you have our unequivocal permission to walk briskly provided you don't use that patently ridiculous exaggerated arm movement as you walk! Agreed?

      November 28, 2012 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
    • Julia

      Yes, everything is bad for you in some way. The line that is being crossed here is that these things are UNNECESSARY and bad for you. If the good outweighs the bad, like running, as the person above stated, then fine. However, we do not NEED these chemicals for some kind of amazing benefit, so WHY is it there? Oh yeah, it shouldn't be, and it's the market's way of trying to sell this thing that has this "great" flame-resistance technology or whatever. They don't care about your health, they want you to be dumb and hand over your money for their amazing discovery.

      November 29, 2012 at 13:42 | Report abuse |
  2. Ludwig

    Instead of just being a figurative couch potato, your couch will turn you into a real potato!

    November 28, 2012 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Haley M

      hahahah this made my day. thank you!

      December 2, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse |
  3. SMARTER THAN THOU

    VEY?

    November 28, 2012 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Taylor

    Moral of the story is don't watch TV in the nude.

    November 28, 2012 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ricky

      Is there any other way to watch TV?

      November 28, 2012 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
  5. TIffany

    Yeah let's worry about our couches but not the mandatory flame retardant in our children's pj's

    November 28, 2012 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • M.E.

      Make your kids pajamas. Untreated flannel is very easy to find in fabric stores, pajamas are an easy sewing project, and your kids can pick out the fabric they want. It's very easy to avoid as long as you're willing to get crafty.

      November 28, 2012 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
  6. Boo

    When I start seeing articles for things that are good for me, I'll start paying attention.

    November 28, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. JFCanton

    This is an example of the prevalence of practices trailing the prevalence of behavior. How much do we need flame retardant furniture, now that most people are not providing the source of ignition by smoking?

    I suppose there are also people who use candles while drinking...

    November 28, 2012 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. topaz114

    When I was a freshman in college (in 1996), I wrote a paper called, "The Hazards of the Dorm Room," and it basically said how couches, carpeting, heavy drapes, etc. have toxins in them. It's kind of funny how this is now considered a "new" news story.

    November 28, 2012 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jean malloy

      Welcome to the world of journalistic idiocy! They are the last to get the memo and they decide to do a story on it. Like two years ago they reported on and wrote about disinfecting kitchen counter tops with a mild bleach solution (disinfectant wipe will also work). How is this news? My mother did that back in the 1960's.

      November 28, 2012 at 15:35 | Report abuse |
  9. Pelegrim

    My couch is toxic? You should see my boxers!

    November 28, 2012 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Aletheya

      er, I'll take your word for it.... !

      November 28, 2012 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
    • Mohamad

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      December 21, 2012 at 07:29 | Report abuse |
  10. Hobson's Choice

    So now we get to choose: burn to death or get cancer.

    People just need to spend less time on the couch and more time outside.

    November 28, 2012 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jesus Christ Superstar

    Oh, you mean the unnaturally produced chemical product that doesn't allow the laws of nature & physics to operate may be toxic? Who would have thunked it!

    November 28, 2012 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • thermaljockey

      The laws of Physics and Chemistry operate at all times, whether you recognize it or not.

      November 28, 2012 at 18:20 | Report abuse |
  12. ORChuck

    On February 20, 2003 in West Warwich, Rhode Island, 100 people died in large part because of foam materials that were not fire-retardant (The Station Nightclub Fire). While those materials weren't in sofas (they were used as acoustical treatment, this tragic incident does show the need for fire-retardants in such materials. A sofa is a large object; it's very often the largest object in a room and occupies a substantial fraction of the room volume. A fire in a sofa can quickly turn into a horrible tragedy.

    Chemistry is NOT evil. Chemistry saves lives every day.

    November 28, 2012 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Bella

    So why do children's pj's still have flame retardent on them. It is very hard to find them without it. If you do they are so expensive ! I might decide to make my own

    November 28, 2012 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Patrick

    Oh great, now I have to get rid of my furniture. But I thank you CNN for your life saving article. You have saved me again and again over the years. I'll be eagerly and fearfully waiting for your next life saving article. Thanks again CNN, I'm heading back into my underground bunker.

    November 28, 2012 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jim Byrd

    Mattresses also have flame retardant chemicals applied. Mattresses pose an even greater risk because of the proximity to the face, and the fact that people spend 1/3 of their lives on a mattress. Flame retardants have dubious merit based on the investigative report on flame retardants by the Chicago Tribune.

    November 28, 2012 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Don

    Notice it doesn't say how much of it is bad for you, how it must be handled to be bad for you, etc.

    Guess what, paper can be dangerous. That stuff can cut you! It hurts pretty bad, and can make you bleed! Imagine if you got enough cuts, you could bleed to death! You had better get all the paper out of your house!

    November 28, 2012 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. ug

    Everything is toxic so are libs...

    November 28, 2012 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Telepathic Minds

      Hi ug, Funny how I was just thinking the exact same thing about the CONS!

      November 28, 2012 at 20:23 | Report abuse |
  18. SFRich

    Looks like we need to bring back those clear plastic Fingerhut covers that were popular in the '60s.

    November 28, 2012 at 16:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. TED

    That is why we let our dogs sleep on the couch . I better shut up ,those animal lovers may want me in jail.

    November 28, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. GenXcynic

    This just in: Leading cause of death determined to be birth!

    November 28, 2012 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. hemyola

    So, my children should risk cancer so some idiot who smokes, or who lights candles when drinking could keep his ways??
    Sacrifice my and my children's life for him/her???

    Most of us will never have fire and this is not a smart exchange of "chances." And, I should have the right to choose what's in my furniture, clothes, sheets etc. I will make my own furniture and clothing, thank you.

    November 28, 2012 at 17:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Debbie

      well you could just try making sure your smoke detector works, and have several in your home depending on the size. Candles and smoking in bed ARE dangerous but are by far not the most common cause of fires, faulty wiring and space heaters are.

      November 28, 2012 at 17:42 | Report abuse |
  22. hemyola

    And, this is not news. This is one of those stupid things like fluoride. If you are smart and informed, you have known it for a long time and avoided it. I did.

    November 28, 2012 at 17:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. DP

    The trick is to buy less polyurethane, but I'll buy the kind with flame retardants if I do. Polyurethane foam gives off incredibly toxic fumes if it burns and hurts your chances of getting out.

    November 28, 2012 at 18:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Learned the hard way

    Another class of chemicals that cause hormone/reproductive problems are phthalates, which are commonly found in plug-in air fresheners. I didn't even know until it happened to me, after I stayed in a home where they were being used. The contamination remains for years after you throw those things out, too. Don't use them!

    November 28, 2012 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Ken

    We interviewed the NRDC's Sarah Janssen about toxic chemicals in couches: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaEj0nvWIWc

    November 28, 2012 at 19:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Al Mellen

    I have told my boss more than one time, quit chewing my ass. Maybe the ass-chewing will stop if he reads this article>

    November 28, 2012 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. FredC

    Nothing is safe. I guess we better not live because we might die.

    November 28, 2012 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 29, 2012 at 12:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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    December 3, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Alex H Personal Trainer

    You don't have to go crazy. A good detox diet (neatbodies have an anti-estrogenic one, that's the best) would do.
    Hell, I eat and give my clients chocolate bars (not very mainstream.. I know) and it works... you just have to get your liver into a gold state.

    December 4, 2012 at 08:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Auth

    I have a pair that is pretty much what you deesribcd. They are Steve Madden Violet .I got them at The Shoe Department. The heel is only about 2 and the sole is fairly flat. They REALLY comfortable.I would suggest Steve Madden pumps regardless of whether you like the style I have or not. My experience is that those shoes are some of the more comfortable ones and they're not all the expensive (mine were $ 25). Steve Madden has ALOT of really cute styles other than the ones I have that would probably fit your preference as well.

    December 21, 2012 at 08:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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    December 21, 2012 at 23:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. HankSez

    Some of these chemicals are more that "probably toxic" - they're dangerous. I bought two expensive (and very comfortable) recliners last year manufactured by Lane Furniture in Tupelo, Miss. I started having sinus and respiratory issues but couldn't imagine that the reclners could be the cause. After numerous doctor visits for infections, an allergist confirmed that I had only minor reactivity to the standard allergens and I should look to another source for my symptoms. I finally narrowed it down to the recliners. The longer I sat on one, the worse the symptoms became. My wife says it's
    God's way of telling me to get out of the recliner (but, but, it's football season!). The retailer and the manufacturer could care less. I had to dump both recliners at a big loss. This article was written in Nov 2012, as were similar articles in tons of publications. Get what was done about this problem? NOTHING.

    August 28, 2013 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. captainhurt

    The age of chemicals: 50s-70s, when everyone smoked cigs, burned down houses with cigs, drug addicts daily taking things like alcohol were funny, and food, chemicals, and radiation were deployed to the public without health criteria.

    January 3, 2014 at 14:14 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.