November 28, 2012
Hazardous Flame Retardant Chemicals Found In Household Dust
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The researchers detected 44 flame retardant chemicals, 36 of which were found in at least 50 percent of the samples taken from homes, some of which had levels that exceeded federal health guidelines.
The flame retardants found in house dust are in furniture, textiles, electronics, and other products, and included hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and chemicals with unknown safety profiles.
"Tris was phased out from use in baby pajamas back in 1977 because of its health risks, but it still showed up in 41 percent of the couch foam samples we tested," said Heather Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.
She said more manufacturers have been treating their couches' foam padding with chemical flame retardants to adhere to California Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 177. TB 177 requires all residential furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small open flame without igniting.
Most manufacturers buy their foam padding from a vender who buys the chemicals to treat it from another vendor, so identifying the chemical flame retardant gets lost along the way.
The team analyzed 102 polyurethane foam samples from couches purchased for home use in the U.S. between 1985 and 2010.
The tests revealed that 17 percent of the foam samples contained the flame-retardant pentaBDE, which is banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states.
PentaBDEs are long-lasting chemicals that migrate into the environment and accumulate in living organisms. Studies have shown that the chemicals can disrupt endocrine activity and affect thyroid regulation and brain development.
After 2005, the researchers found that Tris was the most common flame retardant chemical found. They also identified two new flame-retardant chemical mixtures in more recently purchased couches.
"Overall, we detected flame-retardant chemicals in 85 percent of the couches we tested and in 94 percent of those purchased after 2005," Stapleton said. "More than half of all samples, regardless of the age of the couch, contained flame retardants that are potentially toxic or have undergone little or no independent testing for human health risks."
"If a couch has a California TB 117 label, you can all but guarantee it contains chemical flame retardants," Stapleton said. "But this is where labeling requirements get confusing: the lack of a TB 117 label on a couch does not guarantee the absence of chemical flame retardants. It's not that cut-and-dried."
She said that so many new proprietary chemical flame retardants have been introduced in recent years that it has become difficult for scientists to identify them all.
Dr. Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute and co-author of the study, said swapping one hazardous chemical for another is not good.
"When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it's being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be," Brody said. "It's not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market."
One independent fire safety scientist disagrees with California's fire standard TB 117 label.
"The potential harm from fire retardant chemicals used in furniture is very concerning," Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas said. "My research found that the California fire standard provides no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses — furniture ignited by small flames. In view of the toxicity of substances put into furniture foam to meet the California standard, the rule does more harm than good."