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California Decides to Stop Poisoning Our Sofas

A version of this story appears in the Spring 2013 issue of OnEarth magazine.

Two years ago, Sarah Janssen biopsied her couch. After removing the cushion covers she cut out a square-inch chunk of polyurethane foam, wrapped it in tinfoil, and sent it off to a laboratory at Duke University. Janssen, who is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth), had been participating in a study of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture.

One year later the results came back. “Based on the levels they found in that sample, my couch contained a whole pound of these chemicals,” she says.

Janssen lives in California, which has strict flammability stan­dards for furniture containing highly combustible polyurethane foam. Known as Technical Bulletin 117, the 1975 guideline was meant to ensure that cushion foam is flame-resistant. But in reality, it does little to prevent the spread of fires because it applies only to the foam inside furniture. Moreover, the flame-retardant chemicals are themselves hazardous.

“The old standard was the worst of both worlds: toxic chemicals in everyone’s home and body, and no fire protection,” says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

Fortunately, hazard­ous flame retardants will soon be a thing of the past -- at least in fur­niture. Today California released a new draft flammability standard, formulated with input from NRDC scientists, that will soon phase out the use of hazardous chemicals like the ones in Janssen’s couch. That's good news for the rest of the country, too: because California makes up such a large part of the market, furniture makers have been treating couches with these chemicals whether or not the they are sold in the Golden State, to avoid having to make entirely different product lines for consum­ers in other parts of the country.

Janssen’s cushion sample was one of 102 couches from across the country analyzed by Duke researchers. Of those couches, 85 percent contained toxic or untested flame retardants. Janssen wasn't happy to discover she's been lounging amidst the most common chemical: chlorinated Tris. Manufacturers voluntarily removed chlorinated Tris from children’s pajamas more than 35 years ago, after it was linked to cancer. “It’s crazy that anyone thought it would be okay to put it in household furniture,” says Janssen. Semi-volatile chemicals like chlorinated Tris don’t stay inside your couch. Instead, they gradu­ally evaporate and adhere to household dust, which can then be ingested or inhaled.

The second most common flame-retardant chemical that the Duke researchers found was pentaBDE, a hormone dis­ruptor that can interfere with re­production and the neurological system. The United States began phasing out PentaBDE in 2005, but many couches and other pieces of furniture loaded with the stuff still remain in homes.

Since few flame-retardant substances have ever been studied, “nobody knows whether or not the rest are safe,” says Janssen. California’s old rules re­quired only that the inside foam be flame-retardant, and manufacturers realized that the application of cer­tain chemicals offered the easiest and cheapest means to meet the standard. “But fires don’t start on the inside of your couch,” Janssen says. “They start on the outside.”

The new standards would require that the material covering the furniture (where fires actually begin) be flame-resistant, instead of the cushion foam. “It’s a win-win,” says Janssen. “Better fire safety and no toxic chemicals.”

Jans­sen says the new regulations will eliminate the need for chemical treatment, since many types of cover fabrics are already fire-resistant. Nor should the new standard raise furniture costs, since an estimated 85 per­cent of couch fabrics are now compliant, according to the fed­eral Consumer Product Safety Commission. “If everything goes as it should,” says Blum, “by September people will be able to buy furniture that is both more fire safe and much healthier.”

Finally an opportunity to kick back and relax!

Bonus: Hear Sarah Janssen narrate her toxic couch's story in this animation produced by NRDC's Science Center.

image of Justine Hausheer
Justine E. Hausheer is a science and environmental journalist with a penchant for paleontology, wildlife, and far-flung ecosystems. She has a degree from Princeton and a master's in science journalism from NYU.