Usually an abundance of caution is a good thing.
But in the case of flame retardants and the furniture industry, it didn't work out that way. Decades ago, alarmed by couches being set aflame by negligent smokers, people jumped aboard the idea of dousing furniture cushions with flame retardants. It was still the age when people were enthralled by chemicals, Jiffy Pop and other dubious ideas. So California passed a law requiring that these synthetic chemicals be used on couch and chair cushions. That was in 1975. Everyone else followed along.
It seemed like the prudent thing.
Those flame retardants are toxic, and today we know that our couches and chairs leak synthetic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, male infertility, male birth defects and lower IQs among children exposed in-utero. When the furniture foam deteriorates it can collect in rugs and dust around the house, and that's not good for pets, toddlers and everyone else. Experts advise vigilant vacuuming and that you cover any rips in couches or chairs where the cushions have become exposed.
Ironically, if there's a fire, firefighters are most at risk, because these flame retardants create a toxic gas when they burn. (It's bad, too, for occupants of the burning house.)
Today, firefighters groups oppose these flame retardants.
And California has done an about face. The state passed a new law to get these harmful chemicals out of new furniture. This new move seems a lot less risky for human health since studies have proven that the flame retardants didn't work well anyway, and that furniture coverings can tamp back fire even better. Under California's new flame-resistance standard (TB 117-2013), which went into effect Jan. 1, furniture can meet fire resistance requirements by using certain fabric coverings or by employing a polyester lining between the fabric and the untreated foam.
Unless polyester turns out to be toxic (and it was amply skin-tested in the 70s), the new furniture should be much safer. But the decades-long practice of saturating foam with flame retardants, like most bad ideas, has left a troubling legacy. What can be done about all that existing flame retardant-infused upholstered furniture?
An event today in San Francisco highlighted what can and should be done.
The “Safer Sofa Foam Exchange”, held in San Francisco at the Foam Order, a custom foam store at 1325 Howard Street, demonstrated that people can remove their treated foam and replace it with untreated cushions without replacing the entire piece of furniture.
The event, sponsored by the Green Science Policy Institute, also sought to remind people that taking their used furniture on to second-hand stores may not be a good solution. This just sends treated foam into new homes, where it can continue to deteriorate and shed flame retardants.
The foam turned in at the Foam Order on Tuesday will not be passed along to the disadvantaged, but will be stored and used for scientific experiments to determine how to remove the harmful chemicals. And people trading in their cushions got 20 percent off the price for replacements.
"Our goal is for custom foam businesses throughout the country to take notice of this event and start their own foam exchange programs to address this new demand," said Green Science Policy Institute scientist Stephen Naylor, PhD.
"This program is about getting flame retardant foam out of homes and off the resale market, and it's also about environmentally responsible disposal of the flame retarded foam."
That's right, it's also a problem when upholstered furniture is sent to the landfill, where it can leach into the groundwater. Flame retardants are especially persistent, it was discovered too late.
"The fate of the discarded cushions is the real heart of this effort," Naylor said. "There are tens of millions of flame retardant-containing couches in California, and most are either resold (usually to low-income communities), dumped in landfills (where they pollute food and water sources), or recycled into carpet padding with the flame retardants still present. None of these are acceptable long-term solutions."
The Green Science Policy Institute is assembling a team of scientists to separate and destroy the flame retardants in this foam. They'll begin with the foam collected by Foam Order.
Naylor sounded hopeful: "Preliminary experiments have already begun testing one possible method of chemically recycling the foam with flame retardant separation."
Learn more at the Institute's webpage.
Their scientists tested couches and found these flame retardants: TDCPP or chlorinated Tris, officially listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011; PentaBDE, later banned globally because of its toxicity; Firemaster 550, also toxic.
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