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Every year, about 3,500 people die in fires in the U.S. Firefighters responded to almost 400,000 house fires in 2010. Common causes of house fires are overloaded electrical outlets, portable heaters, knocked over candles and smoking.


To help prevent house fires, many U.S. furniture manufacturers started adding flame retardants to the foam in couches sold to consumers. In California, it was mandatory. The state’s flammability standard, called “Technical Bulletin 117,” was enacted in 1975 and focused on saving lives by protecting people from fires started by candles, matches and other small flames.


But what was meant to help people might instead be harming them.


Research has indicated that flame retardants can migrate from foam to household dust to people and pets. Other research has linked flame retardants with adverse health effects, like cancer. And in California, lawmakers are now changing the regulation to reduce the levels of these flame retardants.


It’s often unknown which flame retardants are in furniture and how much. So, in a recent paper in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, researchers took a close look at which substances are in couches found in family rooms and living rooms across the U.S.


Heather Stapleton and colleagues analyzed 102 foam samples from residential couches and found that more manufacturers — about 85 percent — are now using flame retardants in their couches compared to the past. For couches purchased in the last seven years, 93 percent contained flame retardants. More than half of the couches contained untested flame retardants or retardants that have raised health concerns, including “Tris,” which is considered a probable human carcinogen based on animal studies and was phased out from use in baby pajamas in 1977.


What do you think? Should manufacturers continue to add flame retardants to furniture? Do the risks outweigh the benefits?


“Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out,” Environmental Science & Technology


Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A nutrient-rich clay long used to treat diarrhea might help to solve a problem related to the *ahem* other end of the digestive tract. A new report shows that the mineral attapulgite could be useful as a sustainable slow-release fertilizer, a key ingredient for feeding the world’s growing population.


In ACS’ journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Boli Noi and colleagues propose using the clay to release plant nutrients at a controlled rate to maximize their effect. They cite studies showing that plants take up less than half of the fertilizers applied to them.


This inefficiency is not only expensive, it wastes an increasingly precious resource. The world uses about 150 million tons of fertilizer each year -- enough to fill about 6.5 million semi-trucks. That number is expected to double by 2030 as the world’s population grows. What’s more, the excess fertilizer runs off into rivers, lakes and other waterways and causes pollution problems.


Attapulgite would control nutrient release, allowing plants to use the nutrients more efficiently and limiting their environmental impact. Slow-release fertilizers currently in use are imperfect. Some may not release all of their nutrients to the soil for plants to use. Others can make the soil more acidic or leave unwanted, lab-made compounds in the soil. Noi’s team argues that nutrient-rich attapulgite is more environmentally friendly, cheaper and more effective.


Before Noi and his team used it as a fertilizer, attapulgite – named for a town in southwest Georgia where the clay is abundant – was a main ingredient in a range of anti-diarrheal medicines, including Kaopectate. Although its U.S. formula changed in 2003, the over-the-counter drug still contains attapulgite in other Canada and other markets. In the digestive tract, it effectively absorbs toxins and acids.


They tested fertilizer pellets made from a mixture of attapulgite, humic acid from decayed plant material and guar gum, a thickener used in foods and cosmetics. The humic acid and guar gum coating helped to slow the release of nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients trapped in the clay. The coating also helped to trap water in the soil.


The group reports that their fertilizers were easy to make, produced less runoff, improved soil moisture and regulated soil acid and alkalinity. The authors conclude: “All of the results indicate that it may be expected to have wide applications for sustainable development of modern agriculture.”


Will smarter fertilizers help solve the looming food crisis brought on by the world’s population growth? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


“Novel Multinutrient Fertilizer and Its Effect on Slow Release, Water Holding, and Soil Amending,”
Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research


A sustainable new farm fertilizer could include an ingredient found in some diarrhea medicines.

There was a time, some of you will still remember, when you could count the number of well-known national breweries in the United States on the fingers of your mug-holding hand. I won’t do a commercial here and name them, but you know which ones I mean. Many are still around today. And then, in 1980, something happened: Eight “micro” or “craft” breweries gushed onto the scene, and by 1994, that number jumped to 537. Today, there are more than 1,600 craft beer factories.

Apart from carrying imaginative brand names featuring fish and dogs and descriptors like “flying” and “sappy slappy,” brewers develop these microbrews with special care because they aren’t produced in gigantic quantities. The American Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as a small, independent brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer a year. Compare this with the more than 18 million barrels that the nation’s biggest brewer delivers annually.

With the increase in popularity of the craft beers has come an increased attention to flavor and appearance, including the head –– the foam at the top of the glass or mug. So those beer-lovers who enjoy a rich foam will be pleased to hear about the results of a new scientific study.

Scientists have discovered in the yeast used to make beer what they believe is the first gene for beer foam. And this is a good thing because the finding may well lead the way to improving the frothy head, according to researchers. Tomás G. Villa and colleagues identified the gene, which they call CFG1. They say it’s similar to one in wine and sake yeasts that also contributes to foaming. They found that there is good reason to believe the gene also could pump up the foam in beer, the world’s most popular alcoholic drink.

The researchers, writing in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, explain that the head of beer is made up of bubbles filled with carbon dioxide gas, which the yeast produces during fermentation. Proteins gather around the gas, forming the bubbles in the foam. Studies have shown that proteins from the yeast stabilize the foam, stopping the head from fading away too quickly. Until their discovery, however, no one knew which yeast gene created the foam-stabilizing protein, the researchers say.

So, armed with this new information, scientists are off and running toward putting an even fuller white mustache on the faces of beer aficionados.


“Cloning and Characterization of the Beer-Foaming Gene CFG1 from Saccharomyces pastorianus,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry



Beer foam.jpg



Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock