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Is Your Couch Toxic?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. California required furniture makers to put flame retardants in their upholstery to delay combustion and give people extra time to escape a fire. What’s not to like about this idea?

Well, it turns out that some of the chemicals that are frequently used as flame retardants in sofas and chairs are endocrine disruptors and may also be carcinogenic. That means they could affect hormonal and neurological function and might increase the possibility of developing cancer.

Does Tris ring a bell? This chemical made headlines back in the 1970s because it was added to children’s pajamas as a flame retardant. When it was discovered that Tris was a mutagen and a possible carcinogen it created a lot of controversy and was eventually removed from the market. A new study just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology reveals that Tris did not disappear from our lives. According to the scientists, 41 percent of the foam from couches they tested contained Tris.

The investigators analyzed samples of polyurethane foam from 102 couches around the country. They found toxic or untested flame retardants in 85 percent of the foam they analyzed. In older sofas, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ether) was common. This was banned in 2005, but there is a lot of furniture still in people’s homes that contains this flame retardant. Previous studies have linked PBDEs to thyroid problems (Environmental Health Perspectives [EHP], December, 2007).

There’s an epidemic of thyroid disease in the U.S. and no one seems to know quite why. It has been quietly growing for years. Nearly 90 million prescriptions are dispensed for thyroid medications each year, and that doesn’t even count the millions of people with undiagnosed thyroid problems. Some experts estimate that as many as one out of five women over 60 are suffering from “subclinical hypothyroidism” (American Family Physician, Oct. 2005).

That makes thyroid disorders among the most common conditions affecting Americans. What accounts for this epidemic? One possibility is the widespread use of flame retardants in furniture.

How is it possible that chemicals in foam cushions could get into our bodies? After all, we do not eat our cushions. The experts don’t have good answers, but house dust is one possible culprit. The dust itself is not the problem, but chemicals carried on dust may be partly to blame. Americans have levels of PBDEs in their bodies that are 7 to 35 times higher than those in Europeans (Environmental Health Perspectives [EHP], May, 2008). Most European countries banned some PBDEs years ago. Americans, however, are still being exposed. When these chemicals get trapped in house dust, they can be easily transferred to skin and lungs.

Cats may be serving as the canaries in the coal mine. Veterinarians began noticing an epidemic of feline hyperthyroidism in the 1980s. This corresponds to the introduction of PBDEs. When cats groom themselves, they are exposed to chemicals in house dust. Recent research confirms that the hyperthyroid cats have high levels of PBDEs circulating in their bodies (EHP, Dec. 2007).

Young children crawling on the floor or carpet are also exposed to relatively high levels of house dust and PBDEs as well. Thyroid hormone imbalances during development may affect the brain.

Although other compounds are now being used in place of PBDEs, we don’t know how safe they are. There are also questions about how helpful they may be in saving lives from fires. Some experts suggest that they make smoke more toxic and thus pose an unexpected danger to fire fighters.


What can you do to reduce your exposure to flame retardants? First, if you have young children, you may want to reduce the amount of padded furniture in your home or pay a higher price for products that do not contain such chemicals. You can find more information about such furniture at: http://www.greensciencepolicy.org. Second, clean your house frequently with a vacuum cleaner that contains a HEPA filter to remove toxic dust. And third, always wash your hands before handling any food!

We think it is essential for scientists to learn more about how flame retardants affect health. To read more about this research check out the article or the website.

We recently interviewed Arlene Blum, PhD, one of the authors of the study. It will air soon on our public radio show, The People’s Pharmacy. In the meantime, you can listen to an excerpt of Dr. Blum discussing her research on flame retardants by clicking on the blue arrow at the top of this page. And please stay tuned to The People’s Pharmacy radio show. Our complete one-hour interview with Dr. Blum is intriguing and will air in several weeks. You can sign up for the free podcast of our show so that you won’t miss her fascinating conversation. Here is a link to our podcasts. And while you are at it, you may want to alert a friend to our free email newsletter. Just point them to our website and tell them to put their email into the box provided.

Thanks for subscribing and opening our occasional People’s Pharmacy Alerts. We try hard to only send you information that we think is important. Please vote on this post to let us know if it was worthwhile and/or comment below. Many thanks.

Joe & Terry Graedon

The People’s Pharmacy

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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