I eat fresh, local, real food. I filter my water to remove toxic fluoride and chlorine. I make time for movement, relaxation, creativity and sleep. I even take steps to reasonably reduce my exposure to harmful electromagnetic waves.
You’d think my bases are pretty well covered, right? I did too, until I considered my furniture.
After learning the hard way that fire retardants on my mattress could throw me into severe illness, I knew to prioritize a non-toxic mattress (thanks intelliBED!). But I didn’t know why/where/how to source non-toxic furniture for my home. This challenge led me to explore the toxic fire retardants that permeate nearly every part of our lives.
Blame cigarettes for toxic fire retardants
As I’ve mentioned on Facebook, I recently traveled to Salt Lake City to visit the intelliBED headquarters to see how they make their non-toxic mattresses. Over lunch, Jason (their director of business development) began telling me the sickening story how toxic fire retardants found their place in homes.
And – drumroll, please – it’s because of the tobacco industry and their lobbying. So even though I don’t smoke, cigarettes are making my living environment toxic. Here’s the story…
Why your furniture contains toxic fire retardants
In the good ol’ days, when everyone smoked, cigarettes were causing devastating home fires left and right. To this day, cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths worldwide.
Something had to be done. One solution was to make cigarettes self-extinguish. But that threatened the tobacco industry, since creating a self-extinguishing cigarette would require a significant investment and alter the taste.
So, the cigarette industry turns the blame to furniture. “Don’t blame the cigarettes, the furniture catches on fire to quickly!” You read that right: their argument was to blame the fuel, not the flame.
The tobacco industry creates two front groups – the National Association of Fire Marshals and Citizens for Fire Safety – that successfully protect the cigarette market and champion the chemical industry. Citizens for Fire Safety is actually an association of the three largest chemical fire retardant manufacturers.
These groups successfully lobby, and in 1975, California adopts Technical Bulletin 117. This law requires furniture sold in California to meet extreme flame retardant standards. The chemical fire retardants were not required to be safe or adequately tested.
Because the chemical industry lacks integrity, the fire retardants used were neither safe nor adequately tested. The fire retardants applied to furniture have now been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, and hormone disruption.
What are the dangers of fire retardants?
Green Science Policy Institute’s peer-reviewed paper delves into the damaging health effects of commonly used flame retardants.
In collaboration with Dr. Stapleton at Duke University, the Green Science Policy Institute found that 85% of couches bought between the 1980’s and 2010 contained harmful flame retardants including:
- Chlorinated tris, a carcinogen
- PBDE, which is now globally banned due to toxicity
- Firemaster 550, which is inadequately tested and associated with obesity in an animal study
These flame retardants are also linked to the following health concerns:
- Endocrine disruption
- Adverse effects on fetal development (source)
Toxic Hot Seat Documentary
Jason told me to watch Toxic Hot Seat, an sickening but enlightening documentary about the schmarmy politics behind the toxic fire retardants in our homes. I’ve briefly summarized the story above from the documentary, which is so worth the five bucks to stream it.
The documentary also explains:
- The lack of research showing that toxic fire retardants actually prevent fire
- Why these fire retardants put our firemen and firewomen in extreme risk for cancer
- How concerned consumers and politicians are trying to raise awareness and change legislation
For a shorter/free option, I would highly recommend taking three minutes to watch this video by Sarah Janssen, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Are we still at risk from toxic fire retardants?
Here’s the good news: Technical Bulletin TB117-2013 took effect in 2014. This amendment allows furniture manufacturers to avoid the use of toxic fire retardants. Upholstered furniture and mattresses must withstand a smolder test, whereas they previously had to withstand a blowtorch flame for 12 seconds.
According to the Green Science Policy Institute,
TB117-2013 protects public health and increases fire safety: it can be met without flame retardant chemicals and it addresses smoldering ignition of furniture cover fabrics, where fires start. Smoldering ignitions are the leading cause of furniture fires in the United States. This means improved fire safety without toxic chemicals.
Here’s the bad news: TB117-13 doesn’t prevent manufacturers from using toxic flre retardants, and there is still furniture on the market that contains these chemicals.
Are fire retardants beneficial?
This question is addressed in the Toxic Hot Seat documentary. In summary, the research showing that fire retardants increase escape time from a fire is highly controversial.
Further, fire retardant standards are illogical and overkill. For example, as of 2007, mattresses were required that furniture withstand a 2-foot blowtorch flame for 70 seconds. Most home fires, however, begin with a smoldering cigarette… not a blowtorch.
As explained in the documentary, furniture can be made fire resistant with safer solutions. For example, certain weaves of fabrics can withstand a smolder fire test. Upholstered furniture can be made with this fabric, avoiding the need for toxic fire retardants on the fabric and also the inner foam.
Furniture without toxic fire retardants
From my research, I believe the worst offenders for toxic fire retardants are mattresses (particularly memory foam mattresses) and upholstered furniture. These usually contain foams injected with flame retardants, and the toxins are released into the air.
When it comes to your mattress, you are spending 1/3 of your life with your face breathing in the materials. A safe m
attress is an investment in your health. intelliBED is the non-toxic mattress that changed my life due to the unique materials that support proper body alignment. You can read about my experience with intelliBED here.
intelliBED meets the fire safety standards for mattresses using an inert, silica-coated, mineral-based fire retardant. The fire retardant is not bio-available through any contact and can’t be broken down through heat, pressure, or liquid. It is only activated when the mattress is in flame.
If you are ready to switch to a non-toxic mattress. now is the time. I collaborated with intelliBED to save you 10% off your mattress. Call intelliBED to place your order (they’ll make sure you get the right mattress type for your needs) and tell them Lauren sent you.
Once again, Green Science Policy Institute offers a helpful resource. Here is their list of non-toxic furniture options. The document explains:
- how to find new furniture without flame retardants
- how to replace the foam in your existing furniture with non-fire-retarded options
You can also opt for non-foam furniture, such as wicker or wood. My vintage kitchen chairs (which I found for a steal at a garage sale!) are non-toxic, for example, because they are plastic and made before TB117.
Two months ago, when I was moving into my home and before I delved into the research about toxic furniture, I bought a used couch from a consignment store. And, after learning about TB117, I looked on my couch label and found this statement – a sure sign that my couch is treated with fire retardants:
I’m in the boat with normal human beings – I can’t replace my couch on a whim. I do the best I can with the knowledge I have at the time. That’s the best I can do. And right now, I can share the information I’ve learned and, gradually, create a safer living environment for myself.
Since this may be a while, in the meantime I will focus on improving the air quality in my living room. If you watched that toxic couch clip above, you’ll remember that the toxins in the foam are released into the air. I use Moso air purifying bags and an air purifying rubber plant.
For further reading and resources, I recommend GreenSciencePolicy Institute.org and ToxicFreeFireSafety.org.
This has concerned me for years. I enjoyed reading your article, Lauren.
I’m not sure I can safely say that a plastic chair is non-toxic, but it’s a considerably better choice (vintage/used, not new; we buy as little plastic as possible) than a foam chair.
I did want to say that your ads kind of disrupted the reading experience a bit. It would be helpful if they had a top and bottom border to set them apart from the content.
I agree that vintage plastic furniture isn’t a pristine choice, but I figure that is has finished off-gassing and it’s better than upholstered, fire-retardant options (I also like the “reduce-reuse-recycle” approach to using thrifted/vintage items). I also appreciate your feedback on the ads, I’ll work on that.
Thanks for raising awareness about flame retardants in our household furniture. This is a very important topic that people should be aware of. Due to the wildfires consuming large swaths of the western U.S. and even British Columbia, I think it might be worth examining the impact of the fire retardants which are being dumped on the fires. As outlined in this article by Clara Piccarillo, Ph.D., the retardants are toxic and can have an effect on wildlife, including fish in nearby rivers, as well as the firefighters when breathing these volatile fumes. I’m not convinced that we fully comprehend the persistence of these chemicals once applied; i.e., how long do they last in our forests and our rivers? These are important questions for those who live near or recreate in those areas:
I wonder if it’s really necessary to worry about every single thing (stress, am I right?) that MAY have a negative impact on us. Our bodies are capable of coping with quite a lot (like, a lot), especially if you give it the right nutrition and care. While I understand that sick people could benefit from being more wary if they clearly feel a difference, but I don’t think that goes for the rest of us. Just as the pharma industry benefits from keeping people sick the health industry benefits from people thinking “everything is going to kill us” and buy their products.
Great point–I needed to read your comment as I have a tendency to worry unnecessarily.
1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men will get cancer in their lifetime. I don’t think we’re at a point where we can say everything is fine and we shouldn’t worry about every little thing 🙂
As the big pharma benefits from keeping people sick, the vet industry benefits from keeping pets sick. This is all DELIBERATE. Almost everything in our homes today is TOXIC to dogs and especially cats who like to groom themselves every day. Mattresses in baby cribs are still toxic to the little ones! So what if their PJs aren’t toxic, they don’t protect the face and hands. Many babies like to lay face down! Why are more people and more pets getting cancer today – and at earlier ages?
If you want a healthy life, raise healthy kids and have healthy pets, MOVE TO EUROPE.
Great video. Though, I’m pretty sure my carpet has the same chemical fire retardant problem. Anyone know is it’s less toxic to sit on the floor or couch?!!!
Thank you for bringing this to the attention of your readers. My husband is a firefighter in Seattle (since 1980), and the local firefighters were invited to a special screening of Toxic Hot Seat when it was released a few years ago. The screening included a special panel discussion afterward with the filmmakers, as wells as some other individuals representing groups working for safer environments, such as EWG. It was an excellent event, and educational to say the least. The film is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, because it is not only informative, but also compelling and gripping as a movie. I urge EVERYONE to watch this film as soon as possible.
We just did the GPL-TOX test through Great Plains and my 6-year-old is not 1x or 2x high in flame retardants, but is 82x higher than what is considering normal. I’d say this is a much bigger problem than some people realize. I was shocked and appalled. My levels were within normal limits, so obviously there is something causing him to be effected more (absorption or inability to eliminate) by the toxins.
Neither the tobacco industry, nor cigarettes ever caused a fire. Fires were caused by mishandling, misdeeds and carelessness of people. As much as I dislike tobacco and what the fire retardant industry has become, I cannot bring myself to blame an industry for the acts of humans. A portion of our society has learned to play, Victim Of A Large Corporation, to deny their duty to live responsibly. I myself am suffering from a chronic disease that I feel was caused, at least in part, by fire retardant chemicals in the “protective” clothing that I was required to wear for many years; however, I made the choice of careers, knowing of the risk.