Scientists at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment are collecting foam samples from the public and analyzing them for common flame retardants. Read on to learn why this work is so important to the future of furniture.
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Every day, humans are exposed to trace amounts of toxins. This exposure is just part of modern life, and in very small quantities, most toxins will not harm us.
However, sometimes the risks of commonly used chemicals are not fully understood until after the toxins are commercially available and widely used. Flame retardants, which are a family of chemicals that slow the start and spread of fires, are one such example. Toxicological research can help reveal the health risks of chemicals and other toxic contaminants in our furniture and bedding.
Scientists at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina are leading the way with research that will enlighten future generations of manufacturers, and consumers.
What is the Duke University Foam Project?
Dr. Heather Stapleton’s lab at the Nicholas School of the Environment collects and analyzes furniture foam samples and reports on the presence of flame retardants for the Duke University Foam Project. The goal of the project is to better understand commonly used flame retardants and inform consumers when they are present in furniture.
This project supports the Duke Superfund Research Center, which is devoted to projects that analyze developmental and health impacts of exposure to low levels of contaminants at early life stages. Other research topics in this center include how chemical exposure affects brain development and how fish adapt to environmental contamination.
Data collected in the Foam Project will aid in understanding how chemical exposure from furniture occurs and its effects on human health.
Researchers test the foam samples to see if they contain seven commonly used flame retardants. Reports of these findings are sent to participants six to eight weeks later.
Flame retardant use in furniture explained
Most furniture includes flame retardants to meet a standard set by the state of California called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). First adopted in 1975, TB 117 stated that various parts of upholstered furniture must pass open flame and cigarette smolder tests. Only furniture sold in California requires these standards, but most manufacturers follow them.
Flame retardants work by releasing molecules in response to high temperatures that reduce the spread of fire and how quickly it starts.
While the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which is composed of various oil, technology, and pharmaceutical corporations, has claimed that flame retardants aid significantly in fire prevention and decreasing fire progression, many researchers are not convinced.
According to an article published by the International Association of Fire Safety Science, foam following TB 117 standards does not significantly decrease peak heat release rate (HRR) or fire severity compared to non-compliant foams. Rather, a denser foam with a higher concentration of flame retardant chemicals than that required by TB 117 is necessary to effectively reduce peak HRR. The authors conclude that there is no substantial evidence supporting safety benefits of TB 117 foam over regular foam.
In 2014, a new standard went into effect called TB 117-2013, which set stricter standards for furniture testing, including examining how different parts of the furniture (e.g. foam and cover fabric) interact.
Samuel Cohen, who shares the Foam Project results with study participants and the public, explained that the new standard “make[s] it so manufacturers can meet the standard of stopping smoldering fires in fabric without the need of any flame retardants.”
According to the Duke University Foam Project website, “it is still too early to tell how the standard will ultimately affect flame retardant use overall.” Data collected for the Foam Project will help fill this gap in knowledge.
Why is testing for flame retardants important?
While flame retardants are used to help keep people safe, their presence in furniture and homes can have unintended consequences.
Evidence suggests that furniture releases flame retardants into the surrounding environment. Accumulation of these chemicals inside can affect people if they inhale or consume dust particles.
PentaBDE refers to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (also called PBDEs), which come in different varieties. These compounds do not bind chemically to materials like foam, so they are released more easily.
Even after flame retardants are no longer produced, the chemicals persist in the environment because they do not degrade readily. So, discontinuation of a chemical does not remove the risk.
Environmental contamination by flame retardants is concerning due to the potential health impacts associated with these chemicals. Animal studies have demonstrated toxic effects on the brain, thyroid, reproductive system, liver, and immune system.
Low concentrations of these compounds have been found in body fat, blood, and breast milk in humans. So, not only do flame retardants store in human tissue, but their presence in breast milk suggests a risk of toxin exposure in very early development.
Countries with flammability standards like TB 117 generally have the greatest flame retardant concentrations in the environment. An analysis of breast milk PBDE in 55 countries between 2000 and 2012 reveals that the highest concentrations by far were found in the U.S.
Additionally, multiple flame retardants have been identified as potentially causing cancer.
The ability for these chemicals to accumulate in human tissue poses concerns for long-term exposure.
The Policy Response
State legislators have responded to the health risks of flame retardant exposure.
Sixteen U.S. states have implemented laws that reduce flame retardant use. One policy in Washington state gives the Department of Ecology oversight jurisdiction over chemical use in consumer products.
An article published in The Guardian states that firefighters, who are particularly at risk of flame retardant exposure, are lobbying for Massachusetts to pass a bill banning flame retardants due to high rates of cancer among firefighters. In 2019, the bill had bipartisan support in the Massachusetts state legislature but was vetoed by Governor Charlie Baker. However, in 2021, Massachusetts passed a law titled “An Act to Protect Children, Families, and Firefighters from Harmful Flame Retardants,” which prohibits the sale of products containing certain flame retardants.
Following a trend of state-level laws targeting flame retardant use, on January 2nd of this year, New York governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation that bans the sale of several products including furniture that contain certain flame retardants associated with adverse health effects. This legislation makes New York the first state in the country to ban the use of certain flame retardants in electronic devices like televisions, following a law passed in the European Union.
Despite conflicting claims from the ACC, mounting evidence suggests a relationship between flame retardants and various health issues, as well as their inefficiency in preventing or slowing fires.
While much remains unknown regarding flame retardant use in furniture and its effects on people after the implementation of TB 117-2013, researchers like those in the Duke University Foam Project collect important data that contributes to our understanding of the chemical exposure we face in our homes.