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By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Nov. 28, 2012 -- Many people may be breathing in chemical flame retardants that are seeping from their upholstered furniture, electronics, and other common household items, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the environmental research group Silent Spring Institute found potentially unsafe levels of several flame retardants in the dust from a large percentage of the homes they examined.
House Dust Has Flame Retardants
Among the chemicals found in the highest levels in household dust were those banned from children's pajamas in the late 1970s, largely as a result of research by University of California chemist Arlene Blum, PhD.
In a separate study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University found that 85% of the sofas they tested were treated with flame retardants and the most common one was the chemical Blum identified as a carcinogen decades ago, known as chlorinated Tris.
Both studies were published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
"Hard to believe, 35 years after our research contributed to removing Tris from children's sleepwear, our current study suggests that more than a third of Americans' couches contain the same toxic flame retardant," she says.
Flame Retardants: Pajamas to Couches
Blum, who is 67, has had a fascinating dual career as a mountaineer and an environmental health scientist.
She was the first American woman to attempt to climb Mount Everest, and she led the first women's climbing team up Annapurna I.
She says her battle to remove chemical flame retardants from home furnishings has been a different kind of challenge.
Three decades after chlorinated Tris was removed from children's pajamas, Blum learned that the chemical had become one of the most widely used flame retardants in foam upholstery.
In her new study, Blum and colleagues from UC Berkley and Duke University tested 102 couches for flame retardant chemicals.
They found that 85% of the couches were treated with chemical flame retardants that had either been identified as toxic or lacked health data.
Many of the tested chemicals were linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and learning problems in earlier animal and human studies, Blum says.
In the other newly reported study, led by Silent Spring research scientist Robin E. Dodson, ScD, researchers found that dust from most of the California homes they tested in 2006 and again in 2011 had levels of at least one flame retardant chemical that exceeded federal health guidelines.
The researchers tested household dust from 16 California homes for flame retardants used in products that included home insulation, upholstered furniture, carpeting and carpet padding, children's and baby items, and electronics.
Babies and toddlers are thought to be particularly vulnerable to toxins in household dust, Dodson says, because they crawl on floors and furniture and frequently have their hands in their mouths.
Decreased levels were found in three homes where homeowners reported remodeling, installing new flooring, or buying new furniture after 2005. The researchers note that this is most likely due to bans of some of these chemicals.
California's 12-Second Rule
Blum and Dodson say California's furniture flammability standards -- the strictest in the nation -- have led to an increase in exposures to flame retardant chemicals nationwide.
California law requires that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand a small flame like a candle for at least 12 seconds without igniting.
This is done by adding large amounts of flame retardant chemicals. Since furniture manufacturers typically want to avoid separate inventories for different markets, most of the upholstered goods sold in the U.S. comply with the California standards.
As foam ages, the chemicals escape and circulate in the air, Blum says.
Blum says the irony is that the flame retardants may not only be harming our health in the absence of fire, but they may be doing little to protect us when fires happen.
Flame Retardants May Not Stop Fires
That view is shared by a fire safety scientist whose research was used to promote the use of flame retardants in foam used in upholstered furniture.
Vytenis Babrauskas says the research was distorted by the chemical industry to suggest that flame retardants are far more flame resistant in foam products than they actually are, and that they are safe when they do catch fire.
He says there is no need for fire retardants in building insulation or foams used in upholstered furniture.
Industry Responds to Studies
In a statement issued in response to the studies, the trade group American Chemistry Council, which represents the flame retardant industry, said that there was nothing in the studies to indicate that the levels of flame retardants posed a health hazard.
"Statistics show that home fires from open flame ignition sources are still a significant problem," the statement says. "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. ... It's important to remember that the flame retardants currently in use, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and national regulators around the globe."
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