Ouch, Couch: Flame Retardants and Your Health

Think about your living room. What’s the most dangerous thing in there — the TV? Maybe the heater or air conditioner?

According to the Center for Environmental Health, it might be your couch.

Though it probably won’t spontaneously combust, the danger is in potentially toxic chemicals that are present in lots of household furniture. Since the 1970’s, flame retardant chemicals have been added to lots of furniture and baby products. It might sound like a good idea — we don’t want this stuff catching on fire from a stray cigarette or match.

But lots of these chemicals create an unhealthy environment for you, your family, pets, and anyone in your house. For decades, the most common flame retardants included PentaBDE. Under mounting concern of toxicity, that chemical was banned in Europe and “voluntarily withdrawn” in America in the early 2000s. (Chemistry folks, take a look at the wikipedia page for more technical information.) Other chemicals include Chlorinated Tris, which was banned from children’s clothing in 1979, but is still prevalent in other products – car seats, high chairs, etc. And still more chemicals combine to make an unfortunate cocktail in our homes.

Don't freak out!

Who uses your furniture the most?

Unless you’ve been buying really old furniture, chances are, your couch has the same chemicals as everyone else’s.┬áHere’s a (short!) video that lays out the basic risks:


What to do? Don’t freak out. The things you probably already do — air out the house when it’s nice out, vacuum your living room, make sure people are washing their hands before eating — are a big part of reducing your family’s exposure to flame retardants. To learn more about reducing exposure, see the Killer Couch guide.

But long-term, the biggest thing you can do is to make sure this problem doesn’t get any worse.┬áHere’s one great opportunity to speak up, with a deadline of March 26th: Head to the CEH website to sign onto a call for California to set strong standards that limit these flame retardants.

Photo credit: dotpolka and handnorglove, via Flickr.

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