Natural Parenting

3 Steps to Avoid Flame Retardants

beautiful baby boy sleeping on a mattressThis could be the end of the line for flame retardants. As the EPA launched an investigation into the chemicals, Washington state banned flame retardants from kids’ products, and California announced a move to update the state’s flammability standards, pressured by those concerned about a policy that had exposed millions of people to toxic flame retardants—also known as PBDEs—in our homes.

What’s the big deal about California? Because the state represents such a large market, California’s flammability standards—governed by TB117, which was adopted by the state 40 years ago—have become a national standard, essentially forcing furniture and baby product manufacturers throughout North America to add chemical flame retardants to their products.

The problem is, these flame retardants—which focus on the flammability of foam, not fabric—don’t protect us from fires.

Why is it so important to move away from PBDEs? The chemicals—which are transmitted through dust to our lungs, blood and even breast milk—are linked to cancer, as well as neurological, developmental and fertility problems. They are also on the list of chemicals experts believe are triggers for autism.

When I first learned about flame retardants, I obsessed over all the toxic stuff I’d exposed my kids to. But there are easy ways to protect your family. A 2013 study linked early PBDE exposure with higher risks of physical and mental impairment when children reach school age. “We observed associations of in utero and/or childhood exposure to these flame retardants and fine motor coordination, attention and IQ in school-age children,” said study lead author Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology, and director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

Today, more than 80% of furniture sold in the United States contains foam treated with flame retardant chemicals, and Americans record levels as much as 100 times higher than Europeans.

With those facts in mind, California’s move can’t come a moment too soon: The new update of TB 117 will require a smolder-only test to determine the safety of upholstery fabrics. In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown stood up in favor of revising California’s furniture flammability standards, which expose millions of families to dangerously toxic flame retardants in our homes.

“Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” Governor Brown said. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Yes, this is a terrifying subject. When I first learned about flame retardants, I set the slide show in my head on continual loop of all the toxic stuff I’d exposed my kids to throughout the years. The footie pajamas I’d cut the tags off of because they scratched. The baby mattresses passed down from my in-laws (as foam degrades, more flame retardants are released). The handy-dandy nursing pillow that cradled my babies’ heads—and exposed them to neurotoxins. The couch, for gods sake.

But there are easy ways protect your family from flame retardants:

1. Look for TB 117 labels on mattresses, pillows (including nursing pillows), baby seats, car seats, strollers and any furniture made with foam. If possible, phase out these products for those that are made without flame retardants.

2. Establish a family hand-washing policy. According to Discovery News, “Workers who washed hands more than four times a day had a threefold reduction in blood levels of certain PBDE flame retardants.”

3. When buying new, do your research; a great place to start is That’s because the marketplace is changing rapidly when it comes to flame retardants. For example, in 2013, Graco announced that it will “ban the use of four of the most toxic chemical flame retardants from all of their products.” Graco is one of the nation’s largest children’s product manufacturers, and sells nearly one out of three baby-gear products purchased in the U.S.

As for that baby mattress, if I were buying one today I’d look for an organic, flame retardant free option, like Naturepedic Organic Cotton Crib Mattress or if you already have a mattress, cover it with a Waterproof Fitted Crib Pad.

11.21.13 Editor’s Note: Governor Brown just effectively banned flame retardants in California, resetting a national standard. Woot!


  • Tereza

    Hi, thank you for your wonderful, informative blog. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about flame retardants in bed rails? I can’t find any information about the topic.

  • Althea Hayes

    Sleep Essentials is a company that supplies flame retardant-free mattresses of pure latex foam (from trees, not polyurethane). They sell mattresses, toppers, and pillows.

  • Erika

    I just wanted to share that it seems some mainstream companies are making some progress – I spoke with Graco today inquiring about their “bumper jumper” baby product. 3 reassuring facts – (I now own this product) – 1. it is 100% polyester, no polyurethane foam. 2. There is not a 117 CA tag 3. The Graco representative said over the phone that they do not use flame retardants in this product. They also told me that they no longer use flame retardants in their strollers as of February 31, 2013. I am happy to see that mainstream companies are finally catching on, and that there are economical options for us to choose flame retardant free products.

      • AJ

        Hi Rachel,

        Thanks for the great blog… just wanted your take on something. Back in August we purchased the Graham Glider chair from West Elm. My wife was late in her 1st trimester of pregnancy at that time. I was naïve to any possible issues with it. But it had an overpowering new furniture smell that filled our bedroom and after a week or so I decided to move it downstairs. It has the 117 tag attached and West Elm assured me that no chemicals were sprayed on it. I used baking soda and white vinegar and that seemed to help some. I moved the chair back to our bedroom and the smell is still there but much less. I bought an air purifier also. Our obgyn didn’t seem too concerned about it. My question is if the polyurethane foam can contain other harmful things that we aren’t aware of. It was made in China, which is maybe a red flag. I’m inclined to send it back.. thx for your input.

        • Rachel Sarnoff

          Thanks so much for reaching out, AJ! So there are some things to think about here. Is the glider made of solid or pressed wood? If pressed, there could be an issue with formaldehyde. If solid, is it unfinished or painted/sealed? If painted/sealed those could release VOCs. Re TB117 and the updated standard, there are probably still flame retardants in the foam and/or fabric. Here’s a great article on the updated standard: I would recommend calling West Elm and ask them very specific questions about the manufacturing, and if you’re not comfortable with what you find out then definitely send it back. I’ve got more tips in my Guide to Natural Parenting and Pregnancy, if you want to check that out: Best of luck with your new little one!

          • AJ

            Thank you for the helpful info. West Elm replied and assured me that there are “no chemicals used in the entirety of the chair”, per their vendors. The chair is basically all polyurethane foam with a very small amount of wood-just the base of it that allows it to glide, but it’s a small piece. So my main concern is the polyurethane and why it smells…I was assuming any smell meant chemicals but perhaps that’s not the case. I will most likely keep the chair and put it in the garage for a month or so. Also, we are painting the house next month…our plan is to use no VOC paint. She is 18 weeks preg. Any concern w the no VOC paint at all? thanks so much.AJ

            • Rachel Sarnoff

              Okay yes let it air out and see if that changes anything. With no VOC I’ve been learning that some need to “cure” before they are truly no-VOC. So given that she is pregnant, maybe stay out of the home for a few days after its painted until there is no smell? Good luck!

              • aj

                West Elm just sent me a lengthy email. I will try to paste it here if I can. Now I’m not sure what to do. Might return it just for piece of mind. Thx for all of your input.


                Thank you for your inquiry regarding item # 2197580 Graham Glider, Performance Velvet, Toast, Chocolate Legs.

                Per your request: The factory must use chemical treatment for wood. All of wooden furniture usually been treated with chemicals to bring the moisture content down as well as protect the wood from insects.


                All of our composite wood substrates meet the CARB emissions standards. The CARB standards have been in effect since 2008 our furniture standard is the CARB2 standard for formaldehyde emissions. This is one of the strongest standards in the world. That said, we cannot advise that any of our furniture is formaldehyde-free. That is not our corporate standard. Also please note that we do not advise the specific chemicals that our vendors use to make their foam CAL 117 compliant, only that Flame Retardant chemicals used in our products conform to all currently mandated chemicals and levels. We cannot say which item has “the least amount of toxic chemicals” – all are subject to the same standards.

                Our products meet all of the applicable state and federal standards for PBDE’s (flame retardant chemicals), formaldehyde and the lead standards. All finishing materials will emit some VOC’s for a short period of time until they totally cure out.

                “West Elm furniture product finishes are tested to current state and federal regulatory standards and fall within these standards”.

                If we may be of any further assistance, please contact us via email. Alternatively, you may contact our Customer Service Department directly at 1(866) 937-8356 from 5:00am to 9:00pm (PST) Monday-Friday or 6:00am to 6:00pm (PST) Saturday-Sunday.

                Kind regards,

                Cleta Jennings

                west elm

                Customer Service

                • aj

                  Also, not sure if this is related but I noticed that my wife’s breathing in the couple of weeks after we put the chair in our room was a little “throatier” while she was sleeping and not as easy.

                  • Ross Endicott

                    AJ, please look up the symptoms of irritation from overexposure to formaldehyde. “Katrina trailers – the temporary housing put up for those made homeless by the hurricane – those stories are about exposure to high levels of formaldehyde. That’s what typically smells in furniture made with lower quality polyurethane foam, particularly that from China. I’d return the chair, or at the very least keep the fumes completely away from mother and baby. (Insidious as it sounds, you may have a nuclear option if the company refuses to take it back while telling you it is safe for mother and child in utero: online, most credit card companies allow you to “contest this charge” up to 180 days after a charge posts to your card!) Children ingest many times the toxins we do, because their little hands go right in their mouths for the first few years.

                    West Elm and all other “law labels” mean nothing unless they specifically advise the furniture was constructed using no added chemical flame retardant chemicals and no added formaldehyde. Following the law is no excuse – the laws are weak and do nothing to protect us as consumers. These laws are loose guidelines for businesses only too eager to comply – they can drive Mack trucks through the holes that are designed to allow profit to flourish over conscientious product manufacturing. Without certainty about the presence or absence of chemical flame retardant crystals in the foam from China (safely assume presence – you can send your foam sample to Dr. Heather Stapleton at Duke for testing to be certain), and only a label that says the furniture is TB 117 compliant, you just don’t know. If it were made right, it’d be labelled right: all our products have law labels that state clearly that the furniture was made without added chemical flame retardants…in large capital letters on the right side of a big label 2x the size of the old law labels. There are many adverse effects of exposure to flame retardants and formaldehyde for mother and especially developing fetus – the thyroid alone is a huge reason to avoid exposure – directly related to baby’s brain development.

                    Sorry to be alarmist but I have been banging this drum for over 8 years and can’t believe this is still a problem all over the USA. Never buy something unless it is clearly stated on the law label as being made without chemical flame retardants. The nose knows about synthetic formaldehyde – FR’s are odorless.

                    Also, a consumer here in Maine just did a lot of painting at home using ECOS paints – truly zero VOC and odorless.

                    • aj

                      Thank you Ross. You just made my decision for me. I just contacted West Elm, who has already agreed to a refund. Also, when the chair arrived it was tightly wrapped in red plastic…i don’t know if that was what we were smelling.

                    • Rachel Sarnoff

                      Can I just say how much I LOVE that this conversation all happened through MG? Yay! Go healthy parenting team! 🙂

            • Ross Endicott

              Formaldehyde in natural form exists in our bodies and in all the plants and bugs and stuff around us. In its chemically engineered synthetic form, it is carcinogenic and a cheap way to add desired properties to adhesives, finishes, and making polyurethane foam fluffier than it would otherwise be. Inexpensive poly foam may have added urea formaldehyde in one of over 40 forms known to be in use today. The USA is the only developed nation that permits high levels of these carcinogens into our consumer products. Rule of thumb – if you can smell it, it’s probably not a good thing. Flame retardants – all of them – have no odor. High quality polyurethane foam has very little -almost no – odor.

              • AJ

                We were planning on using Benjamin Moore’s zero VOC paint for the house and stay out of the house during painting a couple days after. Also, planning on purchasing new mattress and bed frame…most likely an all wood frame from Crate & Barrel. Not entirely sure we should be doing all of these things during pregnancy but doing it the best we can.

                • Rachel Sarnoff

                  Yes, it’s all about doing the best we can. Thank you for sharing your story AJ, I’m sure reading this will be helpful to many other pregnant couples as well 🙂

      • Ross Endicott

        CA TB-117 2013 fell short of banning chemical flame retardants. Now manufacturers may pass the open flame and smolder tests with or without chemical flame retardants. A label stating the foam is compliant with TB-117 2013 without further clarifying whether the product was made using chemical flame retardants or not is the only way to be certain. In our Maine store, we have no products that are not clearly labelled this way.

          • Ross E. Endicott

            Last Wednesday, Maine became the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive ban on the sale of new furniture containing chemical flame retardants. Please contact your local government representatives and tell them to be the one to introduce the same in your state!

  • Jenny

    ” I you want a flame retardant free swing option, there are swings from Hushamok and Kanoe that are really beautiful, organic and flame retardant free”

    First I want to thank you for your article! I looked into the Hushamok for our baby. They did mention about using organic cotton. However, they never said on their website what the mattress is made of. I called and learned it is filled with a polyethylene which does out-gas VOCs. Also they mentioned they have a EVP foam which could be treated with flame retardants and also out-gases and phthalates:

    Just wanted to share this with you and any others since it is not mentioned at all on the website and it shows you really have to contact the manufacture to really investigate and learn what you are buying.

  • Norma Hallworth

    Please be aware that any cotton used in mattresses, etc., often times contains boric acid as a flame retardant. I found this information online when searching about furniture and bedding that did NOT have the flame retardants that are in and on the foam inside the furniture. Boric acid is poison. What else will be find out when we continue searching. Norma

  • Alison H. Buzek

    Hi Rachel,

    I wish I had known about toxic flame retardants before I received my baby shower gifts. Now I have several items that the baby will be spending a lot of time in – a swing, a co-sleeper, and a foam changing pad – that are CA TB117-compliant. They are unopened and returnable since we are not due until March. But I was wondering too – is there a way to safely protect our baby from the foam, like covering the furniture or wrapping it with safe blanket or sheet? Or do you recommend that I just return them and start flame retardant-free?

    Thanks SO much for your help!

    Alison Hahn Buzek
    San Diego, CA

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      Thanks for writing Alison, and I totally understand your concerns! When I talk to people about flame retardants, I often share that they can use a thick mattress cover over large items that are difficult to replace–such as a bed mattress. And it’s true that covering can minimize the impact. But since flame retardants are transmitted through dust, it’s really not entirely effective. For items that your baby will be spending a lot of time in, such as the co-sleeper, I would recommend looking for another option than one that has flame retardants. Have you looked at Moses Baskets? Both my daughters slept in those and they were amazing. Changing pads are very easy to find flame retardant free. I you want a flame retardant free swing option, there are swings from Hushamok and Kanoe that are really beautiful, organic and flame retardant free, but they are not automated. I hope this helps, and I’m happy to answer more questions as you have them! Best of luck with your new little one 🙂

      • Alison H. Buzek

        Thank you so much, Rachel. We are super excited about expecting our first child and want to keep him as healthy as possible – especially since we live in a high-dust area of SoCal.

        I have one more question for you if you don’t mind answering – is it the complete product that is TB117 compliant or just the polyurethane foam? What about the polyfiber batting – does that have toxic flame retardant in it as well? I ask because I wonder if it might be an economical choice for us to replace the foam with non-fire retardant foam and replace or make handmade cover for the padding.

        Thank you so much again,


        • Rachel Sarnoff

          That would be a question for the manufacturer, is there a number you can call to ask them? Please share the outcome in comments as I know many readers appreciate this knowledge as well. Thanks!

          • Ross Endicott

            Mommies, It is not true that the latest changes from CA ban chemical flame retardants in furniture. ” The new standard does not ban added flame retardants in furniture. Verify with the retailer or manufacturer that the product does not contain these chemicals, and in 2015, look for a label that states whether or not new TB 117-2013 furniture contains added flame retardants.”

            Because we do not want to mislead consumers, we (Endicott Home Furnishings in Maine) have started labeling our zero flame retardant furniture line with law labels that state TB117-2013 compliance AND a statement that the furniture is made without chemical flame retardants.

            Just because furniture or other items show the law label with language stating the products comply with TB117-2013 alone doesn’t mean zero flame retardants.

            Please be thorough and make sure you can trust the retailer and the information you are getting from salespeople often more motivated by commission than compassion.

        • Ross Endicott

          Fiber fill, like the Dupont Dacron, was never treated with or made using chemical flame retardants in all the years I fought to remove the Fr chemicals from our designs and all products carried by our bricks and mortar store. We now use exclusively 100% recycled PET which is extruded similarly and has the same performance, with 100% recycled drinks bottles. Fabrics are also not treated with chemical flame retardants unless by contract a supplier must meet certain requirements for group homes for the disabled, or other reasons to send the fabric from the mill to a treatment facility before it is then cut and sewn for upholstery at the upholstery plant. Because these extra, costly steps are not required for most consumer applications, the entire collection of over 3000 fabrics we show in our store are not treated with chemical flame retardants. We actually called every single mill for the fabrics we carry, and all said the same thing – no chemical FR’s on fabrics unless a specific requirement exists, in which case additional freight, handling, a FR treatment cost per roll is added.

        • Rachel Sarnoff

          Thanks Jesse, this is great information. I loved my Moses basket so I’m going to have to look further into this. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Ross Endicott

    Endicott Home| has offered its Condo Sofa line of furniture without flame retardants since 2012. Affordable + customizable, designed in Maine + built in NC without chemical flame retardants. #zeroflameretardants #noflameretadants

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