More than three decades after manufacturers stopped making children's pajamas with a flame retardant suspected of causing cancer, new research suggests the same chemical has become the most widely used fire-resistant compound in upholstered furniture sold throughout the United States.
The study, led by Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton, found that foam samples from more than 40 percent of 102 couches bought from 1985 to 2010 contained the chemical, known as chlorinated tris or TDCPP. More than half of the couches bought since 2005 were treated with it.
Overall, 85 percent of the couches contained flame retardants, which escape over time and settle in household dust that people ingest, especially young children who play on the floor and frequently put their hands into their mouths. Several of the flame retardants detected in the new study have been linked to hormone disruption, developmental problems, lower IQ and impaired fertility.
The Tribune's Playing With Fire series, published in May, revealed how flame retardants are commonly found in American homes as a result of a decades-long campaign of deception by the tobacco and chemical industries. Among other things, the leading manufacturers of flame retardants created a phony consumer group that stoked the public's fear of fire to protect and expand the use of their chemicals in furniture, electronics and other products.
The new study, to be released Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, is the first to outline how widespread flame retardants have become in furniture and suggests their use has increased in recent years. Researchers also tracked how the chemical industry has shifted over time from one troublesome flame retardant to another and has introduced new, chemically similar compounds with little or no study about potential health effects.
Another new study in the scientific journal found that chlorinated tris was the most commonly detected flame retardant in dust from the homes tested.
"People just don't have a choice now," said Arlene Blum, a University of California at Berkeley chemist and co-author of the couch study. "These chemicals are in everybody's furniture and pose serious health problems."
Earlier research by Blum led to the voluntary removal of chlorinated tris from children's pajamas in the late 1970s. Because the chemical wasn't formally banned, companies can legally add it to other products without informing government regulators or the public.
Responding to questions about the couch study, the American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the chemical industry, said flame retardants in furniture help save lives.
"There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems," the group said in a statement.
The trade group also cited an analysis of a government-funded study that it said shows "flame retardants in upholstered furniture can provide valuable escape time" from house fires.
However, studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories found that flame retardants in household furniture cushions provide no meaningful protection from fires.
Two of the world's leading manufacturers of the chemicals, Louisiana-based Albemarle Corp. and Israel-based ICL Industrial Products, have pledged to stop making chlorinated tris after fiercely defending its use for years.
Albemarle said it no longer markets chlorinated tris and is in the process of shutting down its production of the flame retardant and related chemicals. ICL said it will stop selling chlorinated tris for use in furniture and children's products Jan. 1 and stop making it altogether by the end of 2015. Other overseas companies still make the flame retardant.
The announcements by Albemarle and ICL come after chemical manufacturers in October 2011 failed to block California from officially listing the flame retardant as a carcinogen and moving to require warnings on products that could expose people to unsafe levels. Other major health organizations already had concluded that the chemical is a cancer risk, including the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute and the National Research Council.
In a statement, ICL said its decision reflected the company's "commitment to market leadership, innovation and responsiveness to market conditions and customer needs." Albemarle called its move part of an effort to restructure "underperforming assets."
More changes could be on the way. In the wake of the Tribune series, California Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing to overhaul his state's 37-year-old flammability standard for residential furniture, which if adopted could lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of chemical flame retardants.
For now, furniture manufacturers say, the cheapest way to comply with the California standard is to add flame retardants to the foam cushions of couches and upholstered chairs sold in every state. California officials and the CPSC have concluded that a more effective solution is using upholstery that resists smoldering cigarettes — the leading cause of furniture fires — without requiring the use of chemical flame retardants.
In the new couch study, researchers collected foam samples from volunteers who had been solicited for help at public meetings or had signed up for mailing lists about toxic chemicals. The authors said that while the sample size was large, it might not be representative of the U.S. as a whole.
Furniture made with flame retardants sometimes features a label stating that it complies with Technical Bulletin 117, the California flammability standard. However, the study found that nearly two-thirds of the couches without a label still contained the chemicals.
The new research provides evidence that the chemical industry started relying more heavily on chlorinated tris in 2005, when the sole manufacturer of another flame retardant known as penta agreed to stop making it in response to studies that revealed it builds up in people and triggers neurological problems in children.
Of the couches bought before 2005, 39 percent contained penta and 24 percent contained chlorinated tris. More than half of the couches bought since 2005 contained chlorinated tris.
Officials at the federal agency that regulates industrial chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency, say they are largely powerless to do anything about chlorinated tris and other flame retardants. The EPA has cited industry's continued use of chlorinated tris as a stark example of why it backs a sweeping overhaul of the nation's chemical safety law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
Existing law allows chemical companies to put their products on the market without proving they are safe and makes it practically impossible to ban chemicals after health effects are documented.
The couch study suggests it is increasingly difficult to avoid flame retardants in furniture. More than a quarter of the older couches tested either did not contain the chemicals or had only trace amounts. After 2005, all but about 7 percent of the couches contained flame retardants.
If a newer couch didn't contain chlorinated tris, the study found, it likely was treated with another flame retardant known as Firemaster 550, which the EPA initially described as a safe, environmentally friendly alternative to penta. It was found in 18 percent of the newer couches tested.
The EPA now considers Firemaster 550 a potential health threat, citing widespread exposure from household products.
Philadelphia-based Chemtura, the manufacturer of Firemaster 550, says it is safe. But the EPA became more concerned after a recent study by Stapleton and Heather Patisaul, a toxicologist at North Carolina State University, showed that small doses triggered obesity, anxiety and developmental problems in baby rats.
In the new peer-reviewed study of flame retardants in household dust, researchers from the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute found chlorinated tris in all 16 California homes tested. Other flame retardants found in house dust included chemicals in Firemaster 550 and nearly 40 other compounds.
The researchers also found penta, the flame retardant that was phased out in 2005. The discovery suggests that Americans can continue to be exposed to chemicals even after manufacturers stop making them, in part because people typically own furniture for years and many flame retardants are designed to be long-lasting.
"These chemicals just shouldn't be in household products," said Ruthann Rudel, the nonprofit group's research director. "By now it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize they are bad for us."