You may have heard a lot about flame retardants and furniture lately. Let’s break down what the buzz is about and what you need to know.

The background:

Flame retardants are used to make foam-filled household items like couches, upholstered chairs, crib mattresses, and car seats flame-resistant. In 1975, California enacted regulation (TB 117) requiring companies to use flame retardant chemicals on most foam-filled and upholstered products to make our homes less susceptible to fires. With California being such a large market, this led many manufacturers to implement the practice nationwide.

Sounds like a good thing, right? Not exactly. While TB 117 may have been well-intentioned, unfortunately it resulted in these household products harming our health in a different way: flame retardant chemicals “off-gas” and collect in household dust, which we then ingest through hand-to-mouth contact. Numerous studies have linked flame retardant chemicals to lower birth weight, reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), hyperactivity, poorer coordination, reduced fertility, birth defects, hormonal changes, and cancer. Additionally, recent studies suggest that flame retardant chemicals in furniture may not actually be very effective at preventing or limiting fires.

The good news:

In 2013, California updated TB 117 to allow companies to meet flammability standards for household products without the use of flame retardants. The new rule, TB 117-13, requires smolder tests for fabrics, rather than open flame tests for the foam inside. While this does not outright ban the use of flame retardants, it essentially eliminates the need for them. TB 117-13 also requires updated labeling that explicitly notes whether the product contains flame retardants or not. TB 117-13 became effective January 1, 2015.

Although TB 177-13 is not nation-wide legislation, the Center for Environmental Health found that approximately 75% of companies nationwide are now labeling furniture with the new TB 177-13 label.

What you need to know:

  • Common furniture items containing flame retardants include couches, baby/crib mattresses, car seats, and anything else containing polyurethane foam.
  • Furniture that does not contain polyurethane foam usually does not contain chemical flame retardants.
  • What about adult mattresses?
    • Adult mattresses are less likely to contain flame retardants because they are held to different standards than TB 117. Companies tend to use a barrier fabric wrapped around the mattress instead of using flame retardant chemicals.
  • Why do many crib mattresses contain flame retardants while adult mattresses do not?
  • If your furniture contains polyurethane foam and you bought or reupholstered it in California after 1975, or if it has a label stating that it complies with the original TB 117, it most likely contains flame retardant chemical.
  • Even if you are buying your furniture after January 1, 2015, it may contain flame retardants (though it would say so on the TB 117-13 label). If it does not have the TB 117-13 label, it may be old inventory or may have been manufactured outside of California.

What shoppers can do:

  • Look for products that are naturally flame resistant, such as down, wool, jute, wood and wicker furniture without foam filling, and products labeled as certified organic.
  • Check for TB 117 and TB 117-13 labels if you are purchasing a foam-filled product.
  • There are many resources online for finding flame retardant-free products, such as Green Science Policy’s Consumer Guide (PDF), NRDC’s Safe Sofas Guide (PDF), and numerous articles and blog posts.
  • When in doubt, call the retailer or manufacturer to ask them whether the product contains chemical flame retardants.

Not shopping for a new couch anytime soon?

  • Keep household dust levels down. Vacuuming with a HEPA filter, mopping, and cleaning furniture with a damp cloth go a long way!
  • Wash your hands!
    • Washing hands frequently, (especially before eating) will help reduce ingestion of dust containing flame retardants.
    • It is particularly important to wash children’s hands, as toddlers have been found to have nearly three times the levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood than their parents.
  • Make sure foam is not falling out of your furniture and seal it back up if it is. You can also replace the foam itself without replacing the entire couch or chair.