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Let’s Talk Chemical Flame Retardants

An interview with Dr. Heather Stapleton

At Savvy Rest, we acknowledge the importance of good health and green living. Our products are made with organic and natural materials that are both safe and comfortable. Too many furniture pieces in homes across the country contain chemical flame retardants and other harmful toxins that consumers are in direct contact with on a regular basis.

Lounging in organic luxury sounds so much better than lounging in chemically-treated materials, which is why we designed our Verona organic sofa line. Made with organic fabrics, natural Talalay latex and zero-VOC stains, our sofas are carefully crafted so that the final product is both elegant and eco-friendly.

Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University’s prestigious Nicholas School of the Environment has conducted extensive research on chemical flame retardants in furniture. In one particular study, she tested polyurethane foam samples that were submitted from various furniture pieces, including sofa cushions. We interviewed Dr. Stapleton about these types of chemicals and how they can affect our health and the planet in general.

When did you start researching chemical flame retardants and what attracted you to this specific type of research?
It was when I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland. I was working on a project investigating the relative concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and some other organochlorine pesticides in the food web of Lake Michigan to understand their sources, fate and bioaccumulation potential. At that time there were not many research studies focused on flame retardants or PBDEs in general.

I remember looking at their chemical structure and being surprised at how very similar it was to polychlorinated biphenyls. At that time we knew quite a bit about PCBs and how they were potentially hazardous in regards to their health impacts on endocrine and immune systems. I thought it would be very interesting to determine whether or not the PBDEs (the flame retardants) were also present and accumulating in a food web of Lake Michigan, and how that compared to the dynamics of PCB residues, which had been phased out for a couple decades, but were still present in the environment.

I ended up conducting a research study when I was a graduate student, basically measuring the concentrations of flame retardants and PCBs to see how similar they were in terms of their accumulation behavior in the food web. I was surprised when we found them in every single sample. That led to other more controlled laboratory studies to look further into their similarities and differences, and that led to more research projects when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That research became a foundation for my research here at Duke University. 

PBDEs flame retardants

A closer look at PBDEs

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs (example, left), are organobromine compounds that are used as a flame retardant. PBDEs have been used in a wide array of products, including building materials, electronics, home furnishings, motor vehicles, airplanes, plastics, polyurethane foams, and textiles.

What types of health risks do people face when exposed to chemical flame retardants?
That’s a bit of a challenging question to answer because there are hundreds of different flame retardants. However, there’s basically about a dozen flame retardants that are the focus of most research studies today, because studies suggest they are commonly detected in the home environment, and often, in human tissues. Several of these flame retardants were discovered by accident, and are the focus of my current research investigating human exposure and potential health effects. Currently, there is more health information available on several classes of brominated flame retardants and several types of organophosphate flame retardants, which are the focus of most flame retardant studies. Once class in particular, a class called PBDEs, which look a lot like PCBs, are persistent and can stick around in the body for a long time.

For example, some of the estimated half lives for PBDEs are on the scale of 5 to 7 years, meaning that it would take 5 to 7 years before the concentration of that chemical in the body would decrease by 50%, assuming all exposure ceased. Exposure to PBDEs can potentially affect thyroid hormone regulation, and they are considered neurodevelopmental toxicants. The concern is that if you have higher exposure during pregnancy or in early life, children will be statistically more likely to score lower on measures of neurodevelopmental endpoints and cognitive function. There are concerns about exposure to PBDEs and associations with the incidence of ADHD, for example. Unfortunately, children have much higher exposure to flame retardants than adults do, typically through inadvertent ingestion of dust particles in the home. Children have more exposure to dust due to mouthing activities, and therefore, more exposure to flame retardant chemicals in the dust. This has been documented in several studies.

The other important thing to note is that the U.S. population has PBDE exposures that are an order of magnitude higher than any other country in the world, and that’s because the U.S. has this unique, residential furniture flammability standard developed by the state of California, which resulted in the use of these chemicals in our sofas and chairs.

TB 117-2013 flame retardants no longer required
Did you know? On November 21, 2013, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. announced approval of the state’s new flammability standard for upholstered furniture (TB 117-2013). The new rule eliminates the need for flame retardant chemicals and has become the standard for the nation. Learn more.

Your studies showed that only 12% of sofas purchased between 1985 and 2010 contained no flame retardants while sofas purchased in more recent years had less unsettling numbers (45% contained no identifiable FR). Why do you think this is?
We actually conducted a study in 2012 that involved approximately 100 samples of foam collected from different sofas in the U.S., and they had a much higher percentage. There have been a lot of changes in the California flammability standard over the past few years that affected the use of these chemicals in furniture.

Originally, most companies didn’t want to develop multiple production lines if they’re selling to more than one region of the U.S. market, so everyone conformed to the California Standard (CA Technical Bulletin 117). And therefore, the California standard became the de facto standard in the U.S., which led to larger use of flame retardants and more exposure. PBDEs were the most common flame retardant used to meet this furniture flammability standard until about ten years ago. However, in 2005 when PBDEs were phased out, the use of flame retardants shifted to other types of flame retardant chemicals, most of which are organophosphate based flame retardants.

In 2013, the state of California amended that standard even further from an open flame test to a smolder test, which again, affected the use of flame retardants in furniture. Today, it should be easier to manufacture furniture without flame retardant chemicals and still pass the flammability standard due to this change from an open flame test to a smolder test. In our recent study, we only focused on polyurethane foam found inside many types of furniture items.

We need more research to understand if the change in the California flammability standard will lead to decreased exposure in the population, or if these chemicals will just be applied to different components in the future (e.g. the upholstery instead of the foam), leading to continued exposure.

Heather Stapleton Duke University

You received 1,141 samples of products, such as sofas, chairs, and mattresses, between February 2014 and June 2016. These samples were used to study which flame retardants were most commonly used and what that means in terms of exposure. Did these submissions come with notes detailing people’s concerns about mainstream furniture products?
We have a lot of unique conversations with people all the time…phone calls, letters, emails, etc. A lot of people are anxious to get their results back, and we tell them to be patient. We see a wide range of responses. In general, the people that contact us are trying to figure out whether or not these potentially hazardous chemicals are present in their child’s mattress or car seat. So, the two that I think generate the most concern are the PBDEs, and then organophosphate flame retardants (like TDCPP). PBDEs as I said previously, have been phased out and are no longer used; however, there are a lot of products still in use that contain these chemicals. Interestingly, TDCPP is a chemical that was actually used in children’s pajamas back in the 1970’s. It was found to be absorbed by infants and tested positive for mutagenicity. There was a big uproar about its use and it was phased out in the 70’s, but low and behold there was no official ban on it, therefore, it became a popular flame retardant for polyurethane foam. Today TDCPP is the most common flame retardants we detect in furniture. But California did add it to the Proposition 65 list, and that does appear to be having an impact, resulting in decreased use of TDCPP in more recently manufactured products.

What is Proposition 65?
What is Proposition 65? In 1986, California voters approved an initiative to address their growing concerns about exposure to toxic chemicals. That initiative became the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known by its original name of Proposition 65. Learn more.

Savvy Rest sells organic mattresses, furniture, and bedding, including pillows made with organic cotton and natural fills such as wool and kapok. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so it’s important that both our mattress and our bedding products are made with natural materials that won’t harm us. You mention pillows at the very end of your article: “…some products that were not expected to contain flame retardants (e.g., pillows), or products that have not been thoroughly tested (e.g., mattress pads) may also be sources of exposure to people and the home environment. Pillows, in particular, may be a significant source of exposure given the proximity and duration of time that people spend in contact with these products on a daily basis.” Is this because of the type of materials that are used, the way in which pillows are manufactured, their close proximity to other contaminated products (mattress), or all of the above?
Pillows don’t have to meet any flammability standard currently, so the fact that we found flame retardants was surprising. Generally, I see flame retardants as being an added cost to the manufacturer, so if they’re not required, I would assume people wouldn’t put them in there. We did find pillows and mattress pads that contained flame retardants, and the majority of those were made of a dense polyurethane, similar to memory foam. Manufacturers may be putting them in there because they think it’s an added benefit. The fact that people sleep on these pillows, and that off-gassing is a main exposure route for flame retardants, suggests that you can have significant exposure if flame retardants are in the pillow and you’re spending 8 to 9 hours sleeping on that pillow per night.

Michael Penny, Savvy Rest founder: I would have to think that flame retardants are in some pillows because it’s part of the manufacturing process. It’s just simpler. Some companies will use the same chemically treated materials in all their bedding products, so what’s in their mattresses will also be present in their pillows.
I do have some colleagues in the polyurethane industry, and they’ve shown me how they make polyurethane used in furniture manufacturing. They mix an isocyanate with a polyol and the flame retardant at the same time. And I’ve often heard that they don’t like to use them because it’s an added cost. They make the foam in very large batches. Sometimes they don’t use all of the foam, so they sell it at a discounted price to someone else. I do wonder if that practice is resulting in the presence of flame retardants in places that we wouldn’t expect them. I also remember that someone submitted a sample of foam from ski goggles, and we tested it for flame retardants and found them in the foam. I imagine it’s an example of one of these scrap foam issues. 

Learn more about our natural and organic products

Browse our collection of layered organic mattresses. Choose Dunlop and/or Talalay to customize the feel to suit your body.
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What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your research?
We published an article in 2011 on flame retardants in baby products, that included things like car seats, strollers, mattress pads, and nursing pillows. I remember we found flame retardants in a bath mat, which was certainly unexpected. But as a result of that research study, and other research conducted at the time, the state of California exempted several baby products from the furniture flammability standard. So today, they’re not applied as often as they were five years ago.

When you study all this stuff, how do you live your daily life without being afraid of everything?
I get asked that question often. I try to think about it logically because there are risks in everything you do. For example, if you eat smoked salmon or a burger, or every time you put something on a grill, you’re potentially introducing carcinogenic PAHs to that food item. There are hazards out there that you can’t control. What we need to do is minimize them when we can. I think it’s important to conduct research and accumulate data to understand where we need flame retardants and where we do not… that’s certainly a motivation for me. In terms of myself and my two young children, if I can avoid products with flame retardants, I do. Also, we know from several of our research studies that people who wash their hands more frequently have lower concentrations of flame retardants in their body. We touch so many things that are treated, so washing your hands can minimize exposure.

Everything that is produced eventually winds up in the waste stream and into our soil. What can you say about the environmental impact of flame retardants?
PBDEs are a perfect example here. They were phased out starting in 2005, but there are still plenty of products out there that still have PBDEs. When people discard their sofas, for example, they end up going to the waste stream, and some of that ends up being re-released back into the environment. It can contaminate the soil, wildlife, and even mobilize into the air and be transported on regional scales. In fact, this has already occurred. PBDEs have been detected in both polar regions. Studies also suggest that as PBDE levels are reduced in the indoor environment, they will increase in our food supply because they are present in the environment in air and soil. Our exposure will change from an indoor/dust pathway to a dietary pathway. Unfortunately, PBDEs are very hard to break down and remove.

This interview was in response to “Results from Screening Polyurethane Foam Based Consumer Products for Flame Retardant Chemicals: Assessing Impacts on the Change in the Furniture Flammability Standards,” a study conducted by Ellen M. Cooper, Gretchen Kroeger, Katherine David, Charlotte R. Clark, P. Lee Ferguson and Heather M. Stapleton. To read their findings, click here.
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