As someone who works at an environmental nonprofit, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to issues like toxic chemicals in household products. I tend to avoid products like foam cushions, which can contain plenty of toxic flame retardants. So you can imagine my distress when my husband recently brought home two foam cushions for our dogs’ bed that the store’s owner claimed contained foam with flame retardants that were “safer” than the older, more toxic varieties.
“Safe” flame retardants? Is there such a thing? I was skeptical. Plenty of research links exposure to flame retardants in furniture and electronics to all kinds of serious physical and mental health problems, including cancer, reduced IQ, developmental disorders, obesity and reproductive difficulties.
And that’s just in humans. Though there’s not yet a lot of research directly linking flame retardants to health problems in household pets, we do know that exposure from other toxic chemicals can create health problems in pets, thanks to a groundbreaking 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group. One often cited example is “Teflon toxicosis,” which led to the deaths of hundreds of pet birds nationwide after they breathed in toxic fumes from overheated, nonstick pans.
The 2008 study also found that dogs and cats in America are polluted with synthetic, industrial chemicals like flame retardants at levels even higher than those found in people, including newborns. One reason is because, as pets groom themselves, they lick off accumulated dust that contains toxic chemicals from nearby, off-gassing furniture. Pets also eat scraps off the floor, which can lead to them swallowing dirt and dust that’s full of accumulated chemicals.
Despite all of this, I really wanted to believe that there’s such a thing as a “safe” flame retardant, so I called up Earthjustice attorney Eve Gartner to get her take on the matter. For the past several years, Gartner has worked tirelessly alongside a coalition of nurses, firefighters and consumer advocacy groups to eliminate flame retardants from our homes and businesses.
Until recently, it was nearly impossible to find furniture free of flame retardants in the U.S. That’s thanks to a deceptive campaign by the chemical industry and Big Tobacco that led to regulations strongly encouraging manufacturers to soak their products with flame retardants. (To learn more about this shady partnership, check out this landmark investigative series by the Chicago Tribune.) But thanks to two victories achieved in large part because of Earthjustice’s work, as of January 2014 it’s now easier for consumers to find and purchase furniture free of flame retardants.
It’s easier, but not easy enough—yet. The new regulation that went into effect in 2014 doesn’t actually ban flame retardants; it just makes it more feasible for manufacturers to forgo using them and still adhere to existing regulations. Now that two classes of flame retardants, brominated and chlorinated, have been in the news a lot lately for their harmful effects, some companies are simply switching to flame retardants that aren’t as familiar to the public (and are less studied by researchers). Some of these “regrettable substitutions” are simply slightly tweaked versions of the originals and pose similar problems.
Says Gartner, “If we were serious about protecting our families and pets from toxic exposures, we’d stop allowing the chemical industry to move from one harmful flame retardant to its chemical cousin, only to find after several years of study that the new chemical is linked to similar harms.”
Additionally, the 2014 rule only applies to the sale of new furniture. Resale shops and charities can still sell or donate furniture laced with flame retardants to unsuspecting families. This second hand furniture is more likely to be bought by families from lower-income communities and communities of color whose children already have higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies than their white, more affluent counterparts. The law also doesn’t extend to individual pieces of foam, which means that items like my dogs’ bed are also left outside of the regulatory safety net.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Earthjustice and its coalition partners are asking the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to request an outright ban on the sale of four categories of consumer products that contain flame retardant chemicals.
In addition, consumers can now check labels on furniture made after December 31, 2014, to verify whether it’s free of flame retardants. The law only covers furniture made in California, but since the state is such a huge market, the law is already creating ripple effects across the country. (Check out the multiple guides from the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) on finding flame-retardant-free products.)
The new labeling law doesn’t cover furniture for pets—luxury doggie sofa, anyone?—so pet owners like me who want to ensure their pet’s products are free of flame retardants will need to go one step further to get that information. Organizations like the CEH offer free flame-retardant testing of foam products in a fairly quick turnaround time. And for more comprehensive tests, consumers can check out Duke University’s chemical testing program.
Of course, it’s ridiculous for anyone to have to do all of this work just to not be exposed to toxic chemicals. And it’s not like this is just some—ahem—“pet” project of dog and cat owners. Last January, firefighters, nurses, chemistry professors and cancer survivors submitted more than 45,000 comments to the CPSC. Their comments were in support of an outright ban on toxic organohalogen flame retardants from children’s products, furniture, mattresses and electronics’ casings. The majority of the comments in opposition to the ban came from the chemical industry.
So Fido and firefighters versus the chemical industry and its manufacturers, whose bottom line is dependent on pushing their product, no matter how toxic it proves to be.
Whose side are you on?