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We think of our homes as safe sanctuaries. Sometimes, however, in an effort to increase safety, we can inadvertently introduce health hazards. In 1975, the state of California issued regulations requiring makers of upholstered furniture to reduce its flammability. The result was that manufacturers began adding flame retardant chemicals in large quantities.

Compounds like tris and PBDEs are no longer used in manufacturing, but they are still present in older furniture throughout the country. What effects might they have on our health? Are newer compounds safer?

Scientists behind the recent study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology discuss their findings that 85% of the couches studied contained chemical flame retardants. Does the benefit of these agents justify the potential harm? Or could your comfy couch constitute a health hazard?

Guests: Arlene Blum, PhD, is founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. She is a biophysical chemist and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Chemistry. Her books on the topic of mountain climbing include: Annapurna: A Woman’s Place and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. The photo is of Dr. Blum.

Her websites are www.greensciencepolicy.org and www.arleneblum.com

Frequently Asked Questions (How do I know if my furniture has flame retardants? How can I reduce my family’s exposure to flame retardants?)

How to Reduce Toxics in Your Home handout

How to Buy Flame Retardant Free Furniture handout

More information and resources for consumers


Heather Stapleton, PhD, is associate professor of environmental chemistry in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free for four weeks after the date of broadcast. After that time has passed, digital downloads are available for $2.99. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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  1. PP

    In Sunday’s paper there was an article about a fight between chemical companies and the EPA over flame retardants in airplane upholstery and fittings. So far the chemical companies have won a delaying round, saying they can’t come up to the standards with current science!

  2. John B.

    I too would like to know if the toxins can be contained by sealing the foam cushions with an impermeable material? Also does time diminish these toxins? The main couch two present cats sleep on Is over 40 years old. Would it still leach toxins which would be a concern? I have had two cats in the past with overactive thyroids that required radiation treatment, buy didn’t know the cause until listening to the show this morning.

  3. Piper

    Wow!! A disturbing and incredibly informative show.

  4. John B.

    Very helpful but we need to mount a campaign to pass laws to protect the public and the defenseless animals, to strengthen the enforcement hand of the EPA and other related government agencies, to make it mandatory that all substances and chemicals are plainly disclosed on every consumer product. It seems that everyone is too complacent.

  5. Cindy

    Excellent show – as always. It was so great to hear from Dr Blum! I read “Annapurna: A Woman’s Place” 30 years ago – and still have a copy. It was riveting. How exciting to see her back in the spotlight – for yet another great cause. Thank you Joe and Terry and thank you Dr. Blum.
    On a practical note. It seems one could cover couch foam with some sort of homemade, impenetrable, fabric dust cover – under the regular covers. Has there been work done on that? Or anything else besides washing your hands and vacuuming a lot.

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