Flammable Furniture: Is the Safety of Flame Retardants Worth the Health Risks?

Flammable Furniture: Is the Safety of Flame Retardants Worth the Health Risks?

Jennifer Hunter
May 20, 2015
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Preventing fire-related injury and death sounds great, right? Not so fast. The New York Times recently debuted a video, detailing the story of the chemical flame retardant Bromated Tris. It was outlawed for use in children's clothing in the 70s due to cancer concerns, yet somehow is still present in much of the upholstered furniture still being sold today. Yes, it may slow a fire from sparking and spreading through a home, but it is worth it? Let's take a look.

It started in 1973 when the government began requiring all children's sleepwear be treated with flame retardant. The chemical that achieved this miracle? Brominated Tris. However, scientists Arlene Blum and Bruce Aimes soon discovered that Tris was, in fact, a mutigen, meaning it alters human genes and quite possibly causes nervous system disorders, lower IQs and even cancer in children. It was — rightly — banned from children's clothing, along with a subsequent iteration called chlorinated tris,which sparked many of the same concerns and was also removed from fabrics.

Even so, when, in 1975, California governor Jerry Brown enacted TB117, a fire safety requirement on all upholstered furniture, manufacturers began using tris in their upholstery foam in order to comply with the law. Because of the size and buying power of the California marketplace, the use of flame retardants in furniture quickly became standard practice and remained unchanged for nearly 40 years.

It wasn't until 2012 when the Chicago Tribune wrote a series of articles exposing the flame retardant industry's false claims about the effectiveness and need for the chemical treatment. Turns out, three of the largest manufacturers had even joined together to create a front group innocuously called the Citizens for Fire Safety to secretly promote their product.

Coincidentally, in 2012, Jerry Brown had recently been re-elected California governor and, based on the new findings, revised the flame retardant requirements and changed the flammability standards. No flame retardant has been banned, but the requirement to use them is no longer in place.

So that's where we stand now: new upholstered furniture may or may not be manufactured using flame retardants (which may or may not cause us damage). The industry says they save lives from fire, scientists say the chemicals might cause a host of nasty problems, especially in children with more susceptible systems, but we have no concrete answers about whether it's safer to use them or not.

What do you think? Are you aware that your furniture may contain fire retardants (and definitely does if it was made pre-2012)? Do you think using these chemicals is worth the possible health risks? Sound off.

See more discussion and the full video at the New York Times.

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