Three years ago, I interviewed a Portland woman who had just learned that potentially toxic chemicals were lurking in her house. Jenny Rottmann, due to give birth to her first child in a matter of days, worried the couch she’d purchased at a local department store could harm both her and her baby.
The pale green couch had been treated with Firemaster 550, a mix of chemicals including two ingredients that federal environmental officials had targeted at the time for review because of the potential health hazards.
Fast forward to today and that department store, Macy’s, is vowing to make sure its furniture suppliers don’t use toxic flame retardants, responding to public pressure from activists. Macy’s made the pledge while noting that it expects few manufacturers are still using the substances.
Other retailers, including Ikea Group, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., have already agreed to phase out the chemicals, according to the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
“While it’s still frustrating to me that I unknowingly brought toxic chemicals into my home at a time when I was trying to have a healthy pregnancy, I am very glad that things are finally changing,” Rottmann, who works for the environmental group, said in a news release. “This is a long-awaited victory for families in Maine and everywhere.”
Studies have found that exposing rats to high doses of Firemaster 550 can lead to lower birth weight and genital and skeletal deformities. Flame retardants also are associated with hormone disruption and neurological and reproductive problems.
But regulators haven’t been so quick to move against the chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency says “it still doesn’t know enough about the flame retardant to take action,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s national trade group, insists that flame retardants help save lives and pose no risk to human health.
In 2012, an investigation by the Tribune found that the chemical industry manipulated scientific findings to overstate the effectiveness of flame retardants and downplay the health risks.
While the EPA has taken no action, another government agency, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, is considering a ban on the chemicals.
Flame retardants are added to cushions for couches and other furniture, designed to keep them from catching on fire. The chemicals then leach out over time into household air and dust that’s breathed in by children, adults and pets. Infants can pick up the chemicals from dust as they crawl on the floor.
The campaign by health and environmental advocates was prompted by a change in California regulations that took effect on Jan. 1, lifting an old requirement that pushed furniture makers use the chemicals to prevent fires.
Today, Rottmann’s son Abe is three years old, and he’s been joined by a younger sister. At the time his mother bought the couch, there was no indication that the furniture contained any dangerous chemicals, she said.
There’s no requirement that couches — or many other products, such as car seats and mattresses — be labeled to indicate whether they’ve been treated with fire-retardant chemicals. But furniture and products that have a label stating that they meet the old California standard, called TB 117, nearly always contain them, according to the Green Science Policy Institute. Furniture without the label often does, as well, though.
Baby products made with polyurethane foam, including nursing pillows, high chairs and strollers, likely contain flame retardants, according to the institute.