Non-toxic living is far more than just eating organic food and avoiding GMOs and pesticides. Here is one more to add to your list as you continue to protect your family’s health: flame retardants. They create unhealthy homes. This is a very alarming issue and most people are not aware of flame retardants, where they lurk, and why they are so dangerous (me included until recently!). We don’t think twice when we sit down on our couches, use our electronics, or put our infants down in their cribs. We  happen to live in California, which requires furniture to be flame resistant and to meet a certain code, even for “green” or “natural” furniture. Flame retardant laws are extremely difficult to navigate and even those who don’t live in California will find their furniture also has the California flame resistant tag on it and is equally laden with toxic chemicals that are as neurotoxic as some pesticides and have been linked to childhood brain cancer and ADHD. 1 “The chemicals at issue are found in nearly everything made with polyurethane foam—upholstered furniture, baby strollers, car seats, pillows—and in electronics like TVs, computers, and cellphones. And scientists are very concerned that the most common class of flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) are showing up in animal tissue as far away as the Arctic Circle. Tests from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly all Americans have these chemicals in their bodies—because once you’re exposed it takes years for the chemicals to get eliminated. Mothers even pass them along to their babies via breast milk.” 2 “These flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to a number of human health problems. The form of PBDE most commonly used in furniture was linked to altered fetal development, thyroid problems, infertility, as well as neurological problems in children, before those health concerns eventually led to a phase-out by U.S. foam manufacturers. Similarly, the primary PBDE used in electronics will be phased out over the next three years, since research has linked it to negative impacts on brain function and cancer risk.” 3

We’re on a toxic treadmill and can’t seem to get off it.4

Check the bottom of any sofa, loveseat, crib mattress, or even your child’s pajamas and you will probably find the little tag that states, “This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117.” Ugh…that dreaded little tag and what it represents. “The black-and-white notice also adorns an array of children’s products, including car seats, nursing pillows, napping mats, strollers and baby changing mats. It might as well be a red flag, according to many health experts who caution that the added chemicals likely pose a greater health risk than any flames they might fend off. Common flame retardants have been linked with learning disorders, reduced fertility and cancer, they say, and non-chemical alternatives do exist.” This is of even greater concern for children since we know that it will end up on their hands and ultimately in their mouths.  5


1. Control what you can, don’t panic about what you can’t. Don’t be afraid to sit on your couch. Despite the widespread use of flame retardants in furniture, it may not be your biggest exposure source, according to . “We think we get exposed from food and from house dust, but which products emit the highest concentrations remains a big question. We can talk about cleaning and limiting exposure to dust, but the only way this can be changed is by changing regulations.” Let your senators and representatives know you support the Environmental Protection Agency’s current moves to strengthen the decades-old (and very weak) Toxic Substances Control Act and force chemical companies to demonstrate a chemical’s safety before putting it into widespread use. 6. The older the furniture, the better as flame retardants can wear away over time; same thing applies to clothing.

2. Clean. While cleaning and dusting won’t eliminate your exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, it helps. For one, PBDEs, though banned, can still crop up in carpet padding, because most of that is recycled polyurethane foam from old furniture. The chemicals are released and bind to household dust, so regular vacuuming and wet-dusting of hard surfaces is a good practice. 7

3.  Put in a special request. When you are buying furniture, request that the manufacturer use foam that hasn’t been treated with chemicals (talk to the vendor, write a letter, or call the manufacturer directly). It may increase the price, but it’s cheaper than buying organic cotton or wool furniture without chemicals (though you could certainly go that route if it matches your budget). And it’s a good way to let furniture companies know you want less-toxic furniture. We will never buy another piece of furniture without writing a letter to have it made without these toxic chemicals. 8

4.  Avoid furniture that meets California’s TB117 law (the law that requires flame retardants). Although rare, there are a few companies that make furniture that doesn’t comply with California law. Finding this out requires some detective work. Retail salespeople don’t usually know whether a piece of furniture has been chemically treated, so you need to call manufacturers directly and try to find out from them. In general, avoid buying furniture with a hang tag that says “Complies with CA TB117” or has similar language. If you don’t see one, call the manufacturer and find out if they know whether their foam is flame-retardant free. 9 I recently found an amazing retailer in Palo Alto, CA whose store manager is allergic to flame retardants, ergo he only sells furniture made without them. Hallelujah! True eco-friendly and toxic free furniture.

5.  Make your home fire-safe. Making furniture flame resistant may feel reassuring as the chemicals add only 20 seconds to the amount of time you’d have to get out of your home in the event of a fire. You’re better off taking proper steps like changing the batteries in your fire alarms, buying a fire extinguisher (and checking it regularly to make sure it works), and, most important, giving up smoking. Cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires, according to the CPSC. 10

6.  Go organic. If you can afford it, buy your baby an organic mattress made from wool (a naturally flame-resistant material), such as this crib mattress from The Organic Mattress Store. When shopping, beware of greenwashing. The term “organic” isn’t regulated for furniture and fibers as it is with food, and some mattress companies use vinyl outer wraps (which can emit volatile organic compounds) or treat mattresses with boric acid to meet flammability standards and still try to pass their products off as organic. Also look for organic-cotton nursing pillows and organic-wool changing-table pads. 11

7.  Opt for polyester. For things you can’t find organic, or if organic is simply out of your price range, it has been suggested to look for products with a polyester fill. “Polyester is treated with a silicone barrier, so it passes the flammability standard but doesn’t contain any chemicals.” Although nothing beats organic cotton or wool, polyester is a more affordable alternative, and it doesn’t emit volatile organic compounds the way vinyl plastic coverings do. 12

8.  Create barriers. “We don’t know a lot about how these chemicals are getting out of products. Polyurethane foam is very porous, and air moving in and out can transport chemicals with it.” But putting some type of barrier, such as a blanket, between your child and his stroller or car seat, for instance, may lessen exposure to some of the chemicals in the foam.” 13

9. Buy baby sleepwwear that does not have flame retardant (admittedly, I have not replaced our baby’s sleepwear yet; this task seems daunting and we have all of these wonderful hand-me-downs…excuses, excuses.) “If baby sleepwear is NOT flame retardant or resistant, it will bear a yellow hang tag that says, “for child’s safety, garment should fit snugly. This garment is not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garment is more likely to catch fire.” There is much controversy over the safety of baby pajamas treated with flame resistant or flame retardant chemicals, so this particular verbiage is often found on tight-fitting cotton pajamas. These are completely safe to let your baby sleep in. If baby sleepwear IS flame retardant or resistant, the hang tag will indicate that it has been tested and it is flame resistant.” 14

Products aren’t required to be labeled as containing these chemicals. Parents almost have to be scientists to determine if the chemical is contained.15Make educated choices when buying furniture, children’s products, and well…everything! Flame retardants are ubiquitous, so take baby steps to try to reduce exposure to them as much as possible. It is nearly impossible to avoid them completely unless you live in a lean-to in the middle of the desert, so take the small steps that are in your control to mitigate your child’s exposure to these toxins. Take the extra five minutes to write a letter before buying your next piece of furniture. We do not want our infants inhaling flame retardants. I would like to decide for my family what my risk tolerance is for fire versus chemical exposure to my children.

Update: A week after we published this post, the media started actively covering the following story about a study by Duke University stating that most of our couches contain harmful flame retardants.

Image credit: Chemistry/Getty Images