This 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 HealthyStuff.org. 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!