Think twice before taking a seat.
From furniture to building materials, flame retardants, substances and other materials are added to slow down the spread of fire. Despite being in common use since the 1970s, health experts have long known about the toxic threats associated with many such chemicals, including cancer and birth defects – and have phased out certain varieties as a result.
However, a new study published in the August issue of Environmental International has revealed that beloved burglary sofas can throw harmful dust into your home at alarming levels, according to researchers at the Silent Spring Institute.
“These are real risks,” said Kathryn Rodgers, a researcher and lead author. Studies have shown that these dangerous substances are associated with hormonal disorders, immunosuppression, some cancers and, most worryingly, problems in fetal and early childhood development.
“When you look at some of these values, you say, ̵
What should I do? Throw away the vintage – or hand-down couch – and get a modern model, researchers suggest.
Flame retardants became standard practice in 1975 after California – one of the largest interior design markets in the country, according to Fast Company’s report – passed a law requiring the additive in furniture production and import. Soon, the foam material used to make sofa cushions all over the country was permeated by the provision.
In the early 2000s, researchers began to recognize the potential health risks, and in 2013 California revised its standard, and the use of retardants in furniture production was optional. In 2020, the federal government followed suit and supported California’s ambiguous stance – meaning that some factories continue to use retardants, although they can increasingly be avoided.
To determine how much damage old, chemically loaded sofas do to American homes, Silent Sprint Institute researchers recruited 42 households who were willing to replace their old upholstered seats. Dust samples were collected from these homes before the sofa was replaced, and again when the new seats arrived.
They found the first samples packed with worrying concentrations of flame retardants, which are released into the indoor environment every time a body hits the pad.
But with a new sofa and six months in between, levels of toxic dust had dropped well within a safe margin, researchers discovered.
The findings suggest that sofas manufactured after 2014 contain significantly lower levels of these harmful chemicals, and consumers will want to buy seats manufactured after that date.
Also keep an eye on the code “TB117-2013” on the furniture label, which indicates that the piece was made after California’s standard was changed. In some cases, the description more definitively indicates whether the material contains flame retardants with a “yes” or “no” indicated as confirmation.
In the past, the American Chemical Council has claimed that the addition of these chemicals to furniture has prevented around 360 deaths and 740 injuries each year. But the jury is out for Rodgers, who explained that better product design has made flame retardants almost obsolete.
“[They] did not make sense from a fire safety perspective – because fires do not start from the middle of your sofa, “she said.