We all heard the horror stories: babies and young children trapped in horrible fires, burned to death on furniture that acted like a tinderbox, thanks to the fact that it was filled with flammable textiles and wooden support elements. The specter of losing lives to unsafe furniture was so ominous that it convinced regulatory authorities to act, mandating the addition of flame-retardant chemicals to furniture products sold in the state of California — and thanks to the fact that the state accounted for a huge percentage of the market, it meant that effectively all furnishings sold in the US included these chemicals.
On the surface, this was a great idea: reducing the risk of fire in the home is generally something we support, and furniture can be a place where fires smolder and flare up. The problem was with the chemicals they used. It turned out that flame retardants weren’t very interested in staying where they were put.
They began showing up in breast milk, thanks to the fact that they accumulated in fat, and they started leading to considerable health problems for both humans and animals. As the evidence against these chemicals mounted, authorities began wondering if the mandate was such a good idea — let alone whether four to five pounds of chemicals was necessary for items like couches.
Environmentalists and health advocates were also concerned, and thus began a long campaign to phase out the laws in light of new information about how the chemicals worked. The battle raged back and forth with considerable debate, but eventually health concerns trumped alleged fire risks, and as of January 1st, the requirement for flame retardant chemicals in furniture was lifted: new furnishings won’t contain these chemicals.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that many people have and are using contaminated furniture at home right now, with few options for replacing it, but over time, the level of flame retardants in the environment should start to drop, as should the harmful health effects in populations as diverse as Inuit women, American children, and seals. For those concerned about flame retardant chemicals circulating in the home, there are some steps that can be taken to mitigate them, including using HEPA filtration while vacuuming and washing your hands before eating or after handling lint and dust.
What can you do to reduce the risk of fire in your home? For starters, contact your electrician about making sure your electrical systems are working properly, with no problematic wiring or other issues that might cause a fire. Use appliances responsibly: don’t overload power strips and extension cords, never attach heaters to extension cords, and make sure cords are firmly taped down so people don’t trip on them. Check cords for signs of damage.
Keep furnishings at least a foot away from heat sources, don’t use candles and open flame around furniture, and consider furnishings made from materials with some natural flame resistance, like wool and natural latex foam.
And, of course, make sure your fire detectors and fire extinguishers are in working order — and if you live in a building with sprinklers, check with your plumber to see if the system needs any attention.