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

112812Couch-small.jpg

Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock