Cancer Causing Chemicals in our Couches?!

Are you sitting down on a couch?  This news may make you want to stand up


A new peer-reviewed study published today in Environmental Science and Technology shows a carcinogen has been used to replace banned toxic flame retardants in many couches sampled in New York and across the United States.  The chemical, a chlorinated Tris known as TDCPP, was removed from children's pajamas in 1977 and has been found in many infant -care products.  The toxic flame retardant was the subject of a proposed legislative ban in children's products in New York in 2012, but failed to pass the Senate in the final hours of session.  All four couch samples submitted by New Yorkers contained flame retardants: three contained TDCPP, and one contained pentaBDE.


The study, entitled “Novel and High Volume Use of Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out,” tested 102 foam samples from couches taken from around the nation.  The scientists found that while 29% of couches made before 2005 contained TDCPP, 52% of couches made after the pentaBDE phase-out contained the carcinogen.  In addition, new classes of flame retardant chemicals were detected, including a proprietary blend called Firemaster 550 (in 18% of post-2005 couches) and a troubling new mixture of phosphate-based chemicals was found in 13% of post-2005 couches.

Chemical use in upholstered furniture has risen dramatically: 73% of pre-2005 couches contained one or more flame retardant chemicals, while 94% of the post-2005 couches had them.  Overall, 85% of the couches contained the chemicals.  Flame retardants were found at levels of up to 11% by weight of the foam.  Two newly found flame retardants appear to have toxic properties. These are organophosphate based chemicals that could be neurotoxic.
























Concerns have been raised about the use of these chemicals, as repeated scientific studies have shown that these chemicals continuously migrate from products, to house dust, to children and pets. 


“Animal and human health studies demonstrate that flame retardant chemicals are associated with serious adverse neurological, reproductive, and hormonal health effects and cancer,” said David Carpenter, MD, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. “There is sufficient evidence to take policy action.”


Further, there is no data to show any meaningful fire safety benefit from adding these toxic chemicals to the foam in residential furnishings.  Instead, when they do combust, they make smoke more toxic, endangering people attempting to escape fires, and firefighters battling a blaze.


“It is alarming to know the couch I’ve owned for seven years, which my children and grandchild have sat on, played on, and grown up on, is shedding harmful chemicals. It’s especially maddening given these chemicals don’t provide any meaningful fire safety benefit,” said Kathy Curtis, LPN, National Coordinator of the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, and Executive Director of Clean and Healthy New York, which supports a New York legislative effort that would ban chlorinated Tris.

“I submitted a sample for testing and was shocked to discover that my beloved couch is loaded with chlorinated tris, a cancer-causing chemical.  How dare they!  When I bought my couch in Long Island a few years ago, there was nothing on the label indicating the couch was filled with this unnecessary toxic chemical.  We need manufacturers and retailers like IKEA to get these dangerous chemicals out of our couches now,” said Mike Schade, Markets Campaign Coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.


“This report highlights critical information that consumers should be aware of, that furniture they own could be laden with harmful and toxic chemicals.  As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation I have worked, and will continue to work to remove harmful chemicals from furniture and other products.  In a society as innovative as ours we must seek to replace dangerous chemicals with new measures that do not have an adverse impact on our health,” said Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo).


“These chemicals have a negative affect on our health and our environment. They are strongly linked to cancer and neurological toxicity.    Their value in the real world as a flame retardant is nonexistent.  There are safer alternatives to these hazardous chemicals. At a September hearing I held, we heard time and again that these toxins have no place in our homes,” said Assemblyman Bob Sweeney, Chairman, New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation.

“When chemical flame retardants burn, they become even more dangerous to building occupants and fire fighters, and there's no proven fire safety benefit from their use in furniture,” said Dennis Sweeney, Health and Safety Representative for the New York State Professional Firefighters Association.  “We can and should find ways to achieve fire safety without toxic chemicals.”


Local organizations and study participants reacted to the news with renewed calls for state-level action to limit toxic flame retardants, and calls for Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act, to deter replacement of one toxic chemical with another.


“This important report shows us that something as seemingly innocuous, and in fact comforting as our living room sofa is in all likelihood spewing invisible toxins into our living rooms every time we or our children sit down on them.  Rates of learning disabilities and other neurological impairments such as autism are at an all time high, and science increasingly warns us of the connections between neurological impairment and these toxic chemicals. Now it is time for our policymakers to act and enact sensible chemical policy reform, both in NYS and nationally,” said Stephen Boese, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State.

"It is long past time for everyday products to be made safe from cancer causing chemicals.  No one suspects their couch of harboring such dangers, nor should they," said Margaret Roberts from the Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer (CRAAB!).  "It is urgent that our elected officials act on this information and pass meaningful laws to prevent toxic chemical use."


“While these toxic chemicals end up in our bodies, increasing our chances for neurological damage and cancers, they are also ending up in our environment, wrecking havoc on our air, water, and natural habitats,” said Caitlin Pixley, Conservation Associate of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.  “These unnecessary chemicals are harmful on so many levels and it is absurd that they are still allowed in our homes.  This study further justifies the case for a comprehensive chemical policy in New York State.”       


Over a dozen states have passed or pending policy efforts to halt ubiquitous halogenated flame retardant chemicals.  New York State has previously banned pentaBDE and octaBDE, and restricted TCEP in children’s products. There is current legislation to ban TDCPP in children’s products.  In September, the New York State Assembly Environmental Conservation and Health committees held a hearing on flame retardants in children's products, at which scientists, business people, firefighters, health advocates and others advocated for bans on the chemicals, while the lone opposition came from the American Chemistry Council.

Advocates called for the passage of the Safe Chemicals Act to strengthen the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).  Passage of overarching chemical policy reform would be an important step in ensuring that one toxic chemical is not substituted for another, as has happened with flame retardants. 

A full version of this study is available here. (PDF format)

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