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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.”


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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.