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. Continue reading