A standard established in the 1970s meant to increase fire safety has turned out to be more harmful than it is helpful, according to environmental advocates. A California-specific rule known as TB 117 establishes fire safety in home furnishings, but furniture makers must include toxic chemicals in order to comply.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced on Monday that he’s directed state agencies to revise that requirement. His announcement cited studies showing high levels of flame retardants in toddlers bodies compared to their parents and in women’s breast tissue compared women who live in other countries or states where the chemicals are not required in furniture.
These man-made chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are used to reduce the flammability in commercial products such as furniture, electronics or electrical wiring. When found in high occurrences, PBDEs are associated with a variety of health ramifications that can have a disproportionate effect on the population: a recent study determined that non-white toddlers, particularly those whose parents have a lower level of education, are more likely to have higher levels of the PBDEs.
PBDEs have been a concern for health and environmental advocates for some time. A 2008 study determined that Californians have twice the number of PBDEs in their blood than the nationwide average, and ten times the amount found in Europeans.
One reason for this is because California is home to a unique flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117. Established in 1975, TB 117, on its most basic level, requires polyurethane foam (such as that found within couches) to withstand exposure to a small open flame for twelve seconds. Chemicals such as PBDE make that standard possible in that they help to slow flame ignition in foam.
“What’s ironic is that most manufacturers have said that if they didn’t need to follow TB 117, they wouldn’t douse their products with so many chemicals as they do,” said Dan Jacobson, Legislative Director of Environment California, an environmental advocacy organization. “But right now because of the way that’s set up…the only way that furniture manufacturers can meet it is by including toxic chemicals.”
A recent study, published by Duke University, looked at 83 toddlers (children ages 12 to 36 months) to test them for levels of PBDEs. Previous studies have shown PBDEs are able to migrate into the environment where they are able to accumulate in living organisms. High levels of these chemicals have been associated with the disruption of endocrine activity and impaired thyroid regulation and brain development.
Lead researcher Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said PDBEs are of particular concern in pregnant women, based on studies conducted on pregnant rodents.
“It significantly impacts the health outcomes of the pups that are born from that mom,” she said of the rodents. “In terms of neural development, in terms of learning, memory function, spontaneous behavior, but also other endpoints too. That’s why we’re concerned.”
Young children have three ways they can potentially ingest PBDEs: consumption of mother’s milk, inhaling them through the air, and ingesting them through contaminated food or dust. Because of the multiple methods of transmission, researchers in the study collected blood serum samples, hand-wipe samples and house dust samples for each child.
The study determined that all of the children tested had some levels of PBDE in their systems. Older children had higher average amounts of the contaminants, which researchers suggest may reflect the combination of two things: PBDE accumulation in the body over time and increased hand-to-mouth activity (think about how often a two year old sucks on their fingers or picks up a dropped pacifier and puts it in their mouth).
The study also found differences in exposure based on race and parental education, a measure of lower socioeconomic background. Stapleton said that some had hypothesized that people with lower income might have older furniture that had deteriorated more, contributing to more PBDEs in the house dust. However, “we did not see a difference in levels of PBDE in house dust if you separate the samples by socioeconomic status,” she said.
Stapleton said that more research needs to be conducted to determine what it is specifically about these conditions – being of lower socioeconomic status or of a nonwhite ethnicity – that leads to higher exposure.
“There’s something else that may be contributing, which we think may be related to behavior or something different,” she said, suggesting that the difference might be explained through diet as well, which the study did not take into account.
It is not just toddlers and pregnant women who are exposed to these chemicals and should be concerned. According to the Center for Disease Control, concentrations of PBDEs in human tissue indicate that most people are exposed to low levels of PBDEs by breathing air or eating food contaminated with PBDEs.
In the past, PBDEs have been existed in the commercial market in three different mixtures – octaPBDE, pentaPBDE, and decaPBDE. These long-lasting chemicals were used widely over the last 30 years to reduce flammability in common household products, but their persistence, bioaccumulation and potential toxicity led to the phase out of two types (penta- and octa-) in 2004. The last form, DecaPBDE, will begin to phase out in 2013.
However, just because they’re no longer used in US-manufactured products, doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. Stapleton says that exposure is likely to continue in the US population for several decades.
“Most of us keep a couch or a mattress or things like that in our homes for up to 10 years,” she said. “Then they just move to landfills, they don’t degrade. So they can just hang around and could maybe migrate from landfills back into the environment.”
But what is even more disturbing, Stapleton said, is that “new chemicals are being used as replacements in products, and we know less about those chemicals than we do the PBDEs.”
While erring on the side of safety doesn’t seem like a bad idea, Jacobson and other advocates argue that the standard is antiquated and ineffective.
“Fires never start on the inside of a piece of furniture, they start on the outside,” said Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, a research organization that provides scientific data about chemicals in consumer products.
Blum has been making waves in this arena since the 1970s, when her work was instrumental in banning two cancer-causing chemicals that had been used as flame retardants in children’s pajamas back in the 1970s.
Blum joined with other researchers to evaluate the benefits and risks of flame retardants in foam furniture. They determined that the TB117 standard did not actually demonstrate a measurable fire safety benefit.
She pointed to a draft federal standard issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that sets a smolder standard for fabric.
The proposed standard says that furniture needs to meet one of two requirements: either furniture needs to be covered with materials that are smolder resistant or they need to place a barrier between the foam and fabric that is smolder resistant. According to Blum, it is entirely possible to meet the smolder standard using nontoxic materials.