We’ve grown accustomed to taking note about what it’s inside our food, about the chemicals used on it, about the conditions animals (if you eat animals) are raised in. But how many of us pay as much attention to the furniture we sit and sleep on and that our children play around?
Americans are as likely to be killed by their furniture as by terrorism, according to a 2011 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Here are five reasons why.
1. To many of us, a couch is a refuge, that comfy spot to sink into after a long day. But lurking in many of our couches are potentially carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals, including one that has been banned for years in children’s sleepwear, Tris.
In 1976, Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames published an article in Science that reported that commonly-used flame retardants were mutagens and likely to be carcinogenic. As a New York Times magazine article recounts, manufacturers switched to another flame retardant, chlorinated Tris (TCEP, tris (2-carboxyethyl) phosphine). Blum and Ames found that it too was a mutagen and therefore potentially carcinogenic as well. Tris was also taken out from children’s sleepwear. (I still remember my childhood despair when my favorite Tris-filled pajamas were removed from my drawers).
For some 30 years, Blum embarked on a “storied career as a mountaineer,” becoming the first woman to attempt to scale Mt. Everest. But six years ago, she discovered that Tris is used in almost all upholstered furniture.
2. The foam in upholstered furniture is highly flammable and therefore treated with high concentrations of Tris.
In accordance with a 1975 regulation (Technical Bulletin 117) from a California agency, the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, furniture must be able to not ignite for 12 seconds when exposed to a small flame. Large quantities of flame retardants must therefore be added to comply with TB 117.
80 percent of the home furniture in the U.S. and most of the office furniture is made in accordance with TB 117 because, due to California’s size, it is “impractical for furniture makers to keep separate inventories for different markets.”
3. Flame retardants don’t stay in foam and can get into our bodies. From the New York Times magazine:
High concentrations have been found in the bodies of creatures as geographically diverse as salmon, peregrine falcons, cats, whales, polar bears and Tasmanian devils. Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.
Blum herself got rid of all flame-retardant containing furniture in 2007, after her cat, Midnight, began losing weight. Midnight was diagnosed with feline hyperthyroidism; Blum wondered if there might be a connection with the disease and Penta, a flame retardant banned since 2004 that she found in high concentrations in Midnight’s blood. She got rid of her old couch as she suspected that flame retardants might be combining with the dust in her house; sure enough, the Penta levels in her household dust dropped to low levels afterwards.
Other studies have found that toddlers, who are more likely to put things into their mouths and play on the floor, have three times the level of flame retardants in their blood than their parents and that the chemicals can be passed via the placenta and breast milk from mother to child.
4. Other deadly chemicals are in our furniture. Formaldehyde, labeled a “known carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, is found in furniture made from pressed wood including particleboard, some plywood and medium density fiberboard, as Jennifer Grayson writes on the Huffington Post. A resin containing formaldehyde is used to bond the tiny pieces of wood together.
Furniture giant IKEA found itself mired in a controversy in the 1980s and 1990s after reports about formaldehyde in its products and has sought to minimize the chemical’s use, as well as that of lead. President Obama has since signed the 2010 Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act into law, to help protect consumers from formaldehyde exposure.
5. Beware of falling TV sets. A 2011 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that, between 2008 and 2010, 43,400 injuries involving furniture required emergency room visits. Between 2000 and 2010, 293 fatalities occurred due to falling furniture, with 176 of those deaths resulting from televisions falling on people. More than half of injuries from falling furniture happened to children and 71 percent happened in private residences.
The solution is simple: make sure your appliances are securely stationed, especially if you have young children who don’t understand that grabbing at the dancing animals on a screen could be dangerous.
California legislators have been working to change the state’s flammability standards. Under California governor Jerry Brown, the Bureau of Home Furnishings has been charged to revise TB 117 so that chemical flame retardants are no longer mandated.
As Blum discovered, the chemical industry is lobbying fiercely against these efforts but she’s certainly up to fighting them, noting that “Mountaineers are famous for their stamina.” Flame retardants are also embedded in building insulation and electronics and Blum plans to continue to work to eliminate chemicals from these.
We may be able to make our couches safer, but there’s a lot more work to be done to make our households simply safe.
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Photo by tonystl