Why are toxic flame retardants still all around us?
How Big Tobacco is linked to household products laced with harmful chemicals
Molly Rauch unzipped one of her couch cushions, picked up a pair of scissors and cut out a lipstick-size tube of foam.
It pained her to cut into her new comfy-yet-stylish couch, but she had just learned about a new research effort. It invited people to send in samples of their furniture to test for unlabeled hazardous chemicals.
“I work in public health, and I’m a mom,” said Rauch, who works for EDF partner organization Moms Clean Air Force. “I had to know.”
She wrapped the foam sample in foil, and mailed it to Duke University scientists.
The verdict? Her couch was laced with chlorinated tris, a toxic flame retardant considered a probable carcinogen.
Also known as TDCPP, it was the subject of controversy in the 1970s when it was used in children’s pajamas. A similar chemical was linked to cancer, so it was banned in clothing. But now it has resurfaced as a flame retardant in furniture foam.
“It really upset me to learn my kids were sitting on this couch, full of a suspected carcinogen,” Rauch said.
Why do we use flame retardants?
Reports question whether toxic flame retardants are even effective at their intended purpose of preventing fires. So why are they still used? The story starts decades ago, with Big Tobacco.
In the 1970s, cigarettes were a common cause of house fires, and California policymakers requested fire-safe cigarettes to lower the horrible injuries and deaths they caused. But tobacco industry groups successfully deflected requests for fire-safe cigarettes by waging a war against the foam used in upholstered furniture, claiming its flammability was the real culprit.
Once some chemical companies realized the profit possibilities in flame retardant chemicals, business boomed.
“Thanks largely to an effective industry lobbying effort in California, toxic flame retardant chemicals were — and still are — poured into furniture foam throughout the country,” says Sarah Vogel, Health Program Director.
Can we avoid flame retardants?
Alternatives to flame-retardant-laden couches are slowly becoming available. In January 2014, California changed its flammability standard. The new requirement doesn’t ban fire retardant chemicals, but it does allow manufacturers to fire-proof in other ways. They can now use natural fire-resistant liners like wool.
Because of the influence of California laws on the rest of the nation, manufacturers everywhere may begin to phase the chemicals out. About 15 other states are also taking actions against flame retardants or other known hazardous chemicals, according to the Safer States coalition.
And some companies are taking matters into their own hands by adopting policies that bar chemical flame retardants in furniture.
Don’t chemicals have to be safe?
For decades, the nation’s main chemical safety law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was weak and broken. It allowed known hazards, like these toxic flame retardants, to go unregulated.
In June 2016, President Obama signed the Lautenberg Act, finally reforming the 40-year-old law. After years of work, we now have a strong foundation to build upon and expand efforts for generations to come. And we’re at the beginning of a new phase of work.
Of course, now the real work begins—implementing the new law.Richard Denison EDF Lead Senior Scientist
Getting hazardous chemicals out of stores and our homes will be a big task. It won’t happen overnight and we can’t expect the government alone to solve it. Consumers, advocates, companies and retailers all have a significant role to play by demanding safer products and striving to go beyond simple compliance with the law.
In the meantime, parents like Molly Rauch will continue to grapple with the knowledge that toxic or untested chemicals are everywhere, and must sort through worrisome advice like “wash hands frequently.”
“Every time someone tells me that I am personally responsible for cleaning up a lucrative industry’s mess that has gotten into my home and threatens my children, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard,” she says.
Thanks to decades of weak regulation, toxic chemicals are in widespread use—for example, certain flame retardant chemicals.
Strengthen the law, pressure companies and provide stronger incentives for them to replace toxic chemicals with safe alternatives.
Progress to date
- Major new law: In June 2016, the Lautenberg Act became law. For the first time, EPA will have real power to evaluate health risks posed by chemicals and regulate dangerous ones as needed. More about this giant step »
- Retailer acts:The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, has asked its vast chain of suppliers to phase out a prioritized set of chemicals from certain household products. Why this matters »