New Study Lends Further Evidence That California's Flammability Standard Puts Vulnerable Populations at Risk

A study published today in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, is further evidence that Californians are the most highly polluted people in the world with toxic flame retardant chemicals. Most concerning is that these high levels continue to be found in vulnerable populations, like pregnant women and children. This contamination has occurred because of an outdated and ineffective California flammability standard for furniture foam.

The study done by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found very high levels of PBDE flame retardants and their breakdown products in a pilot study of 25 pregnant women in their second trimester. This study is important not just because it found the highest levels of PBDEs ever measured in pregnant women, but also because it supports previous studies which have found low income groups are the most highly exposed to these chemicals.

Previous studies have shown that Californians carry the highest levels of flame retardants in the world.  This study confirms that finding and raises further concerns that these exposures are interfering with thyroid hormone function, which is critical for a healthy pregnancy and proper development of the brain. I have blogged previously on the health effectsof PBDEs and other flame retardants which have been associated with disrupting hormones, interfering with development and reproductive harm.

Flame retardants are a group of chemicals added to many consumer products such as electronics, furniture foam, carpeting, curtains, automobiles and even children’s products.

California has a unique flammability standard, TB 117, for upholstered furniture sold in the state. All upholstered foam furniture in California must be in compliance with this standard and though the standard doesn’t require the use of chemicals, the cheapest way to meet it has been to impregnate furniture foam with a lot of flame retardant chemicals. Millions of pounds of flame retardant chemicals are used for just this purpose, every year.

The trouble is - as well-intentioned as the standard may be - it has never been proven to be effective. Improved building codes requiring smoke detectors and water sprinklers, self-extinguishing cigarettes, and overall decreased rates of smoking have probably had a much bigger impact on the number of fires and fire deaths than the flammability standard.   

One of the reasons we are so over-exposed to flame retardants is that they don’t stay put in furniture foam or electronics but migrate out and attach to dust particles which are inhaled or ingested. California homes have up to ten times the amount of PBDEs in house dust when compared to other parts of the U.S. or Canada. Furniture outside of California also carries the TB 117 label, and as a result, the U.S. population is much more highly exposed than anywhere else in the world and nearly everyone carries residues of these chemicals in their bodies.

Another problem with the PBDEs is that they persist in the environment and in people. So though PBDEs have been banned for use in California since 2004, they resist breakdown and will remain in the environment and in us for many decades to come.

On top of that, it is perfectly legal to resell that couch you bought 10 years ago, which likely contains PBDEs. Second hand furniture full of PBDEs is undoubtedly remains in many homes across the country, especially in low income homes, like those of the women who participated in this study.


So what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as replacing your old couch with a new one. Yes, that will reduce your exposure to PBDEs, but another unknown chemical will replace it.

If you live in California, your couch still has to meet the state flammability standard and with no labeling requirement, we don’t know which chemicals are being used to meet that standard. But we have good evidence that other toxic chemicals are being used as replacements.

The problem of one toxic flame retardant being banned only to be replaced by another toxic flame retardant has happened because of the weak federal law regulating the use of most chemicals in consumer products.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), first passed in 1976, was intended to prevent this problem from happening. Because the law has never been updated and because there are a lot of weaknesses in the law, it has been ineffective for over 35 years.  NRDC has been leading efforts to revise TSCA and ensure that once a known bad actor chemical is phased out, the replacement chemical is found to be safe BEFORE it is used in consumer products.  

Fortunately, there have been calls from all sides to update this law, and  legislation was introduced by Senator Lautenberg to reform TSCA. We are in strong support of this bill and today, concerned parents all over the country will be participating in a stroller brigade with their young children, asking their Senator to support this legislation.   You can send your Senator a note from here.

In the meantime, to reduce your exposure to PBDEs and other toxic chemicals which accumulate in dust, follow these simple recommendations:

  • Vacuum often (with an HEPA filter) and wet-mop to reduce build-up of dust in your home.
  • Dust with a damp cloth or a microfiber cloth to avoid kicking up dust particles in the air as you work. For example, don’t use a feather duster as this only releases dust particles into the air.
  • Wash hands frequently, (with plain soap and water!) as hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a major pathway for exposure.

And if you live outside of California, buy furniture without the TB 117 label as shown below.