According to a study by Duke University and the University of California-Berkeley, more than one-third of all couches in the United States are thought to contain potential cancer-causing toxins and other chemicals that could be potentially dangerous for humans.
Researchers at Duke University tested the foam of more than 100 couches, made between 1998 and 2010, and found over 40 percent contained chlorinated-tris, a chemical banned in the 1970s because of health risks. They also found other globally-banned chemicals, such as pentaBDE, in many of the samples along with chemicals that lack adequate health information.
Researchers list chlorinated-tris as a possible carcinogen based on animal studies, which is why it was banned in children’s pajamas in 1977. However, chlorinated-tris reemerged as a flame retardant in foam furniture cushions in 2005 when another dangerous chemical, PentaBDE, was determined to be too dangerous and banned. Many believe that a California law aimed at making furniture less flammable led to the chemical’s widespread use. The law requires furniture sold in the state to withstand a 12-second flame exposure without igniting. Most states have followed suit and enacted similar laws.
The recent study suggests that the furniture foam turns into dust and lingers, where it can be inhaled by homeowners. This is also a potential problem for small children in the household who may be close to the floor and put their hands in their mouths. Prior studies have shown that many of the flame retardants found in the couches can cause hormone disruption, neurological and reproductive toxicity and/or cancer, as shown in hundreds of animal studies and a limited number of human studies.
Despite the current findings, more tests need to be done before drawing any definitive conclusions about toxin levels and the subsequent health ramifications. It is clear from previous studies that these chemicals are toxic and have been shown to cause cancer in rodents, however, what needs to be studied is how much individuals are actually accumulating in their bodies from the use of these chemicals in furniture. Some of the flame-retardant chemicals are stronger than others and will last longer in our bodies, potentially causing more health problems. It is currently not clear just much of these chemicals homeowners are actually get into their blood system or body system from using the couches. There is also limited data on what health problems these chemicals cause in humans and whether or not they do actually cause health problems to humans.
The American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) has reported that the industry has been pressed by competing for demands to make fire-resistant products that are free of toxic chemicals. The AHFA noted its successful strides in reducing household fires involving upholstered furniture and that their efforts have lead to the increased use of flame-retardant chemicals. For nearly four decades the industry has debated over how best to reduce the occurrence of residential fires involving upholstered furniture. The AHFA has always held the position that product modifications should only be made once they are proven safe, effective and affordable. However, experts say manufacturers are not required to prove chemicals are safe before they use them
The American Chemistry Council has reported that there is currently no data to suggest the levels of flame retardant chemicals found in household couches would cause human health problems. However, it appears more research needs to be done to substantiate this claim. Researchers will need to find a way to balance both fire risks and health hazards.
Manufacturers should be looking at ways to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives where feasible and the government should require companies to do that when safer alternatives are available. Currently, the only way to know if your couch contains these flame retardant chemicals is to have the foam tested, which can be very expensive.