How to Avoid Toxic Flame Retardants in Your Furniture

Dr. Oz Show correspondent Elisabeth Leamy shares how you can keep your home safe from hazardous chemicals.

Posted on | By Elisabeth Leamy

When the Dr. Oz Show screened several of our viewers’ furniture and baby gear for flame retardants, every single item tested positive. Some flame retardant chemicals have been linked to reduced fertility, birth defects, hyperactivity, hormonal disruptions, diminished IQ and cancer. Here’s advice for avoiding flame retardants in your future purchases and how to spot them in your home.

Are there already flame retardants in my home?

Look for a TB-117 label. Inspect your upholstered furniture for a label that says “...meets the flammability requirements of California's Technical Bulletin 117...” TB-117 is an antiflammability requirement that resulted in furniture makers adding flame retardants to furniture. If your furniture bears this label, it is likely to contain them. If it does not, it still may contain them. Look for polyurethane foam. Flame retardants are primarily used to treat this type of foam, so if the furniture label includes polyurethane foam as one of the materials, that is a clue that the item may contain flame retardants.

Check the date the furniture was manufactured. TB-117 went into effect in 1975 and at first affected only upholstered furniture sold in California. So if you bought polyurethane foam furniture in California after 1975, it likely contains flame retardants. However, furniture makers eventually found it too difficult to build one set of products for the Golden State and another for the rest of the country, so TB-117 became a defacto national standard.

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) says if you bought polyurethane foam furniture outside of California between 1975 and 2000, it has about a 50/50 likelihood of containing these chemicals, but the more recent your purchase, the more likely that it contains flame retardants. Environmental Working Group also cautions that foam products made before 2005 are the most hazardous because older flame retardants were more toxic.

Check the following products. Flame retardants are also sometimes used in other products such as electronics, carpet padding and building materials. Testing by Duke University has found them in children’s products such as car seats, changing table pads, nap mats and nursing pillows.

How can I minimize or avoid contact with the flame retardants in my furniture?

Mop/dust/vacuum. Researchers believe flame-retardant chemicals come out of our furniture in the form of dust. They recommend frequent cleaning to capture that dust, especially dusting with a damp cloth, and vacuuming with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter, which captures dust.

Wash your hands. To avoid ingesting flame retardant dust, wash your hands early and often – especially before eating and especially young children’s hands, since they tend to put their hands in their mouths a lot.

Inspect foam. Inspect your furniture and children’s gear for exposed, ripped or misshapen foam. Get rid of what you can and make sure the rest is fully encased in a protective cover. Some activists suggest you not reupholster polyurethane foam furniture, since you don’t want to keep those chemicals around any longer than you have to. Alternatively, others suggest you can replace the polyurethane foam in your existing furniture with other types of foam that are not treated with flame retardants.

Re-carpet carefully. Foam carpet padding often contains flame retardant chemicals. For that reason, when you are ready to replace your carpeting, some suggest you isolate the room where there is carpet work and then clean up afterward with a HEPA-filter vacuum.

How can I buy flame-retardant-free furniture in the future?

Choose other padding. The majority of furniture is made with polyurethane foam, but there are other choices, such as down, wool stuffing or polyester fiberfill. These may be less likely to be treated with flame-retardants.

Try other styles. Choose non-padded styles, such as furniture made of wood or wicker. Also consider materials that are naturally less flammable like leather and wool.

Buy after 2014-2015. Late in 2013, California revised the rule that effectively required manufacturers to use flame retardants in their furniture. Now, instead of having to pass an open flame test, the rule requires a smolder test. This will enable furniture to pass without the use of flame retardants. California did not ban flame retardants, but it did give manufacturers a way to voluntarily stop using them and many are expected to stop.

Look for the TB117-2013 label. The new standard comes with a new label, which will say “TB117-2013” since the change was made in 2013. Manufacturers can begin using it in January 2014 and must use it after January 2015.

Ask retailers. Just because the revised California rule enables manufacturers to leave out flame retardants, doesn’t mean they definitely will. The more people who ask, the more the furniture industry will know that this matters to consumers.

Seek out “green” furniture. Already, some manufacturers have recognized that many customers are concerned about flame retardants. Here is a list of green furniture from a group of concerned scientists, as well as a tipsheet to help find green baby gear.

Look for certifications. Certifications for low chemical emissions are in their infancy, but the more people who buy and request certified products, the more there will be. Greenguard, part of Underwriters Laboratories, certifies furniture, paint and other office and household products. Scientific Certification Systems is another certifier. For carpeting, look for the "Green Label Plus" created by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).

Article written by Elisabeth Leamy
Dr. Oz Show correspondent