The Unintended Consequences of Flame Retarding

Is the foam inside your comfortable couch poisonous? Unfortunately it may well be so. California law mandates furniture makers to make foam pass a flame resisting test. It’s a standard known as TB117, where foam in furniture has to not catch fire within 12 seconds of being touched with a small naked flame. The aim of the law is obvious; to give people time to escape a fire, but there are 3 unintended consequences of the regulation:

  1. To comply with TB117 many manufacturers have been treating polyurethane foam with chemicals. These may well be toxic and hazardous to health as they migrate from the foam into household dust. A recent study done by Duke university chemically tested more than a hundred couches and found 41% of them contained foam which in turn contained ‘chlorinated tris’. This is a likely carcinogenic chemical that has long been banned from kids pyjamas. A further 17% of the couches tested at Duke had the chemical known as ‘pentaBDE’ which is banned worldwide. 85% of the couches contained some unknown but potentially poisonous flame retarding chemicals. Such chemicals can make up to 11% of the weight of the upholstery and are very common in couches up to 5 years old. Chemicals used to slow down flammability have been linked not just to cancer but also to disrupted hormone function and neurological poisoning in multiple animal studies as well as a number of human case studies. A recent study published in the journal ‘Environmental Health Perspectives’ saw the infants of mothers with measurable amounts of pentaBDE in their blood when pregnant, had babies with subnormal birth weights, low IQ’s, attentiveness problems and poorer coordination.
  1. Tests carried out by the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggest the chemicals both burn in a few seconds, and give off toxic gases, soot and smoke. These things cause most deaths and injuries in fires. According to one fire safety engineer associated with the Duke study…”fire just laughs at these chemicals. Given their toxicity, it’s really the worst of both worlds.”
  1. Because consumer demand in California is so great TB117 has become by default the standard all over America.


The American Chemistry Council, is a lobbying group for the chemical industry and they comment, saying, “there is no data in this study that indicates that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems.” The opinion is that flame retardants can be a useful tool to meet safety standards giving people valuable evacuation time.

An investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, disclosed tobacco industry documents, earlier this year, that tobacco companies covertly pressed for flame retarding upholstery, rather than the alternative, fire-safe tobacco. Manufacturers are not mandated to prove the safety of chemicals before treating consumer products, but California is acting to change its standard for greater fire safety without fire retardants.

In the meantime the recommendation is to look for furniture made from polyester, down, wool or cotton fillings, and to avoid taking in household dust, by frequent hand washing and vacuuming with a HEPA filter.

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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