By Karen Weintraub
Is that armchair you’re about to sink into bad for your health?
Quite possibly, according to a growing body of research that is raising questions about flame retardants — used on couches and myriad household items so they don’t combust — and the toxic chemicals they release into the air. Things have gotten so bad that Harvard, under pressure from students and faculty, is considering eliminating flame retardant dorm furniture from campus.
Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are ubiquitous, required since the 1970s by fire marshals in every state and community, and promoted by the chemical industry that makes them. But critics say they’re problematic — both in everyday use and when burned – and their effectiveness at stopping fires is also being questioned.
Flame retardants accumulate in the blood stream and can cause endocrine disruption — essentially mucking with hormones needed to grow, reproduce, and think and avoid cancer, according to studies in animals. They also release cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin when burned, said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group. Their impact is particularly significant in young children and during pregnancy, research suggests.
Now, the tide of public opinion is turning against these chemicals, with intense lobbying in California, which led the nation in setting high standards and is now revising them.
Harvard’s administration said last week that it will do what it can to respond to student requests to get rid of flame retardants on campus.
“Harvard is actively seeking to purchase furniture to help meet that goal, while continuing to meet safety requirements included in state law,” Harvard College spokesperson Colin Manning said in a statement.
The chemical industry, not surprisingly, disagrees with Harvard’s move, and says flame retardants are safe and essential.
“Providing adequate layers of fire protection is an important part of making sure a dorm environment is safe,” Steve Risotto, senior director, with the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, said in a prepared statement.
Risotto cited statistics about fires in campus dorms, sororities and fraternities and barracks: there were more than 3,840 fires per year between 2005 and 2009 involving dorms. In 2000, three students were killed and 58 injured in a dorm fire set as a prank on the campus of Seton Hall University, in New Jersey.
“Flame retardants, along with fire alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers, are an important tool to either stop or slow the spread of fire,” Risotto said in his statement. “These facts should be considered carefully by Harvard officials as they make decisions affecting the health and safety of students.”
The student- and faculty-led effort to remove flame retardants from dorms began this spring in a junior seminar. Students did a survey of dorm furniture and consumer products, while their professors presented data raising questions about the safety and necessity of flame retardants.
“Our thought was this could be a case example at Harvard that could be shared with other universities that might be considering house renewals or alternative purchasing strategies,” said Susan C. Wason, who co-taught the class with Jack Spengler. She and Spengler both said there are natural, safe alternatives to flame retardants, like natural latex foam mattresses with wool covers.
“It’s a much healthier option,” said Wason, a research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The class received some financial support from the Silent Spring Institute, where Wason is a research scientist, and which has conducted extensive measurements of flame retardants in homes. Elizabeth Matamoros, who led the student effort, said she was so inspired that she’s working at Silent Spring this summer and may become an environmental scientist.
Flame retardants sprayed on mattresses, seating and draperies can move out of the fabric over time, Wason said. “My perspective as a consumer and a scientist is really to try to reduce the amount of these kinds of substances in your home when possible.”
Massachusetts is one of the only states to require California’s strict flammability standard, Wason said, adding that she hopes the Bay State will follow California’s lead again when it eliminates the need for flame retardants in home furniture with its new standard.
Silent Spring Institute offers these tips when buying furniture for your home:
–Select home furnishings made from natural fibers, such as wool, cotton, and hemp, which are naturally flame retardant.
–Avoid Scotchguard™ and stain-resistant treatment of furnishings and fabrics.
–Avoid furniture made from pressed wood or particleboard, which releases the irritant formaldehyde.
Repair ripped furniture. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling in furniture, so if your couch or chair upholstery has rips or tears, sew these closed to reduce your exposure.
Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-based health/science journalist, is a frequent contributor to CommonHealth.