New data shows a high percentage of California’s furniture contains toxic chemicals called halogenated fire retardants. In hundreds of studies and animal experiments, halogenated fire retardants have been linked to serious health disorders such as cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, neurological and reproductive dysfunction and learning disabilities such as ADHD, mental retardation, and hyperactivity. Today, Californians who undergo testing are finding halogenated fire retardants stored in their bodies at increasing rates, with babies and children showing the highest levels.
Friends of the Earth tested a sampling of 350 pieces of household furniture in stores and domestic residences and found that over two-thirds of furniture tested in retail stores and over half of furniture tested in domestic residences had high levels of halogenated fire retardants.
IMPACT ON CHILDREN AND INFANTS
Infants and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of halogenated fire retardant chemicals, which have been shown to travel from the mother’s body through the placenta and umbilical cord blood to the developing fetus at critical stages of growth and brain development. Studies show that babies are now increasingly born with these chemicals already stored in their bodies. Babies are further exposed to these compounds after birth through breast milk, where they have increased 40-fold since the 1970’s.
Halogenated fire retardants migrate from furniture into household dust where they are inhaled, building up in human and animal tissue over time. A recent study released in October, 2007 shows that California has three to eight times the household dust concentrations of these chemical compounds compared to the rest of the U.S. and U.S. concentrations are, on average, ten times higher than European concentrations.
Infants face enormous health challenges in a world that is increasingly dominated by industrial chemicals. Body burden studies tell us that babies are now born with hundreds of chemicals already stored in their bodies—topping the list are halogenated fire retardants, particularly a sub-class called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).
These chemicals have been shown to cause serious health disorders in hundreds of animal studies including endocrine disruption, cancer, birth defects and a whole host of reproductive and neurological disorders.
Halogenated fire retardants are passed from the mother’s fatty tissues, where they bioaccumulate over time, and travel through the placenta and umbilical cord blood while the baby is in utero. Once the baby is born, he or she undergoes further chemical exposure by ingesting these compounds through breast milk. U.S. women have one of the highest exposure rates of these chemicals in the world and, on average, have ten times the levels of halogenated fire retardant chemicals in their bodies compared to European or Asian women. As a result, recent studies show that North American women have the highest levels of these chemicals in their breast milk in the world.
In addition to ingesting halogenated fire retardants from breast milk, children also directly ingest these compounds through hand-to-mouth contact or inhalation. Toddlers and children are at the highest risk of ingestion since they often play on the floor or on furniture, where household dust tends to accumulate. Because children receive these chemicals from their mothers’ bodies as well as through the household environment, halogenated fire retardant chemicals are now found in higher levels in children relative to their parents according to a number of recent body burden studies.
Halogenated fire retardants are used principally in furniture foam. Because these compounds
are not chemically bound to the foam, they escape into the indoor environment where they settle in household dust. A recent EPA literature review estimates that 82% of the human body burden of a halogenated fire retardant chemical called pentaBDE comes from dust.
A body burden study measures the amount of harmful substances that are permanently present in the body of a human or animal. Many harmful substances can be routinely and naturally eliminated by the body, but some are removed very slowly or not at all—especially those that are lipophilic, which means they build up in fatty tissues. Halogenated fire retardants are lipophilic, meaning that once they enter a human or animal body, they tend to stay there and bioaccumulate, impacting normal functioning.
IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Halogenated fire retardants are not only building up in human and animal tissue, but are bioaccumulating throughout the global environment. These compounds are increasingly found in river and bay sediments throughout the world, including extremely remote areas such as the Arctic Circle. Some of the highest
levels of PBDEs have been found in marine mammals at the top of the food chain including harbor seals, dolphins and killer whales. These compounds have also been found in meat and fish regularly consumed by the general public.
An ongoing issue of concern is that there is no way to safely dispose of products that have been treated with halogenated fire retardant chemicals. As consumer products which contain these fire retardants are land-filled, composted, littered, or recycled, the chemicals within them enter the waste stream and are dispersed into the larger environment.
Conventional water treatment plants are neither designed nor equipped to remove these chemicals from the waste stream. It is hypothesized that these fire retardants may rinse off clothing during laundry cycles, eventually ending up in sewage that’s applied to farm fields as fertilizer, ending up in the food chain.
Water quality testing has shown that these compounds are flowing into waterways at alarming rates and settling into river and bay sediments. As halogenated fire retardants build up in sediments, they increasingly
accumulate in aquatic life, eventually ending up at the top of the food chain, namely large mammals and humans. In the San Francisco Bay area, concentrations of PBDEs in humans and wildlife are among some of the highest reported worldwide
THAT’S ENOUGH PBDEs were first introduced into the consumer marketplace in the 1970s. Like most industrial chemicals in use today, their toxicity impacts were not studied in advance of their widespread use. Since then, PBDEs have been found stored in the tissues of humans and animals throughout the world. Over the past 15 years, governments around the world have recognized that halogenated fire retardants such as PBDEs are highly toxic and worked to ban them from use.
LEGISLATIVE ACTION AB706
Friends of the Earth is working to end the use of halogenated fire retardants in furniture in California and is the co-sponsor of California Assemblyman Mark Leno’s Assembly Bill 706 (AB706), the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Furniture Safety and Fire Prevention Act. Poised for passage in 2008, AB706 will ban halogenated fire retardants, while promoting safer, affordable and less toxic fire safety measures in furniture including fire resistant upholstery
fibers, bio-based furniture filling foams, improved furniture design and phosphate-based chemicals, boric acid and melamine.
AB706 is co-sponsored by MOMS (Making Our Milk Safe) and has the support of dozens of firefighter, burn and trauma organizations, public health groups and religious, consumer, and environmental organizations.
AB706 SUPPORT LIST
Friends of the Earth (co-sponsor)
MOMS – Making Our Milk Safe (co-sponsor)
Alicia Ann Ruch Burn Foundation
As You Sow Foundation
Breast Cancer Action
Breast Cancer Fund
California Furniture Manufacturers Association
California Labor Federation (AFL-CIO)
California Professional Fire Fighters
California State Firefighters Assn
Center for Environmental Health
City and County of San Francisco
Clean Water Action
Coalition for Clean Air
Consumer Attorneys of California
Consumer Federation of California
Diversified Health Services
Environmental Working Group
Episcopal Diocese of California
Firefighters Burn Institute
Firefighters Cancer Support Network
Healthy Children Organizing Project
Healthy Child, Healthy World
Marin County Board of Supervisors
Monterey Fish Market
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
The Ocean Conservancy
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Planning and Conservation League
Sacramento Fire Fighters Local 522
San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798
San Francisco Fire Marshal
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
1. Support AB706—write to Governor Schwarzenegger and your State legislators.
2. Take steps to protect yourself as a consumer:
a. Before buying new furniture, ask the sales staff whether the product contains “halogenated fire retardants”. If they don’t know, don’t buy it.
b. For existing furniture, look underneath the sofa, chair, or other foam products (including children’s cribs, etc.), to see if there is a label specifying that it meets California Technical Bulletin 117. If so, there is a high likelihood that it contains halogenated fire retardants. To be certain, you may wish to contact the manufacturer.
c. There are numerous furniture makers now offering safer products. Some of these include all-wool linings and latex filling that are both fire-safe and free of fire retardant chemicals, as well as others that include more benign phosphate chemicals. These furniture makers can be found with a web search. Friends of the Earth’s website may offer information about suppliers (www.foe.org).
d. When you buy upholstered furniture containing polyurethane foam, look for models where the foam is thickly covered or wrapped inside the cushion so dust from it is less likely to escape into your home.
e. Buy wooden furniture or furniture filled with polyester, down, wool, or cotton. It is unlikely to contain added fire retardant chemicals.
f. Vacuum often and use a HEPA filter to keep the dust level down in your house.
3. Support Friends of the Earth’s work to end the use of toxic fire retardants. Visit their website at www.foe.org to make a contribution.