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According to a new study released Wednesday, there is an 85 percent of couches in the U.S., like the sofa pictured here, contain known toxins.

Known toxins still present in most U.S. couches, study shows

by Drew kann
Nov 29, 2012

Weight gain may not be the only health risk facing “couch potatoes,” a study released this week shows.

A whopping 85% of couches tested across the U.S. contain toxic chemical flame retardants, according to a report that researchers from Duke University, Boston University and the University of California at Berkeley published Wednesday in Environmental Science and Technology.

At present, regulation of such toxins is in flux. But for anxious consumers, there are simple ways to minimize potential exposure.

The study examined 100 couches purchased in the U.S. between 1985 and 2010, and researchers found a number of potentially hazardous chemicals in the samples.

Despite the fact that certain chemicals were shown years ago to pose health risks, critics say, weak federal laws regulating these chemicals have allowed the products to remain in the marketplace.

“There’s a cookie-cutter approach to chemical regulation in this country and there’s one over-arching law that’s supposed to regulate toxic chemicals, and it doesn’t,” said Kathy Curtis, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York, a group that advocates policy changes to promote safer chemicals.

Currently, chemical safety is governed by a relatively ancient piece of legislation, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Under this law, the EPA can’t require safety testing until evidence appears showing that a substance or chemical may be hazardous.

For some, that rule doesn’t provide enough protection. When consumers go to the store, “there should be a basic level of protection that you can assume” is in place, said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a broad coalition of groups whose aim is to remove toxic chemicals from homes and everyday products.

Among the most common retardants detected were polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a class of flame retardants that the EPA is concerned may be “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment.” Researchers found PBDEs in 39 percent of the samples tested.

Most PBDEs were phased out of use in home furnishings in 2005. However, according to the study, one such chemical called DecaBDE, has remained in use. It is scheduled to be phased out in December due to concerns about its neurotoxicity.

Another chemical flame retardant, tris phosphate, was found in 24 percent of couches sampled, even though it was banned from children’s clothing in 1977 after the chemical was shown to cause cancer in test animals.

Industry groups argue that the chemicals in question are needed to protect consumers from fire.

In response to the findings, the American Chemistry Council, a national chemistry trade organization, said in a statement that the study “confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives.” It also contended that “There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems.”

Indeed, the main reason for the use of flame retardants is that furniture makers want to comply with a 1975 California flammability standard known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), which requires foam used in home furnishings to withstand a 12-second open-flame test with minimal burning. That's a tough rule compared to other states, but California is such a large market that makers routinely apply the state’s rules to products they sell nationwide.

“Soaking the fabrics and the foams with these flame retardant chemicals is the simplest way to meet this standard,” said Igrejas.

Though known toxins remain in the market, there is hope for consumer-safety advocates: a new proposed law called The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, has been approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works committee and is awaiting a full Senate vote.

If passed, the law would toughen existing rules by requiring chemical manufacturers to submit safety testing for chemicals they produce before the products are cleared for consumer use.

“The major problems with the existing system of chemical regulation would all basically be addressed by the Safe Chemicals Act,” said Igrejas. “That’s something that we would urge all people to get behind.”

In the meantime, there are a few measures that consumers can take to ensure that the new couch they’re eyeing doesn’t contain deadly neurotoxins, or to minimize the fallout from their current furniture

Toxins are released into the home environment as the foam in couches gradually disintegrates into dust. To mitigate the risk of ingesting the chemicals their couches may be shedding, Igrejas advised homeowners to dust and vacuum thoroughly and regularly.

Consumers should also be vigilant when purchasing a new couch.

“Anything that has polyurethane foam in it, that’s a pretty surefire sign that it has these flame retardants in it, but the absence of it doesn’t mean that they definitely don’t,” said Igrejas. Ultimately, he said, it’s currently “ a real buyer-beware situation with these products.”