Couches could contain hazardous chemicals, study finds

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Your couch could be housing a number of hazardous chemicals, according to a study recently released by Duke University and UC Berkeley.

The study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology, examined 102 couches from 27 states and found that 41 percent of the couches contained chlorinated Tris, a known carcinogen.

According to Veena Singla, an associate at the Green Science Policy Institute who was also involved with the study, 17 percent of the couches also contained the toxin pentaBDE, which can cause hormone disruptions. Singla said that these chemicals enter human bodies by being dispersed into the air from the foam in couch cushions.

“They’re constantly dispersing into the air from the foam, and they’re settling into house dust,” Singla said. “The main way chemicals get inside our bodies is via dust, by hand-to-mouth contact. You touch a surface that has dust, then you touch your mouth or eat something.”

Arlene Blum, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, co-authored the study and has been publishing research on Tris for years. Her research contributed to the 1977 Consumer Product Safety Commission’s ban of Tris in children’s clothing.

“I was really surprised, to say the least, that a chemical known to cause changes in DNA would be put in high levels in our furniture, especially when there’s no proven fire-safety benefit,” Blum said.

Singla said that various chemicals, like Tris, were likely to be found nationwide due to producers conforming to California state policy, which requires couches to maintain a certain degree of flame retardancy.

She added that there remains a strong lack of consumer information regarding the various chemicals.

“There was a real kind of lack of knowledge about what types of chemicals might be inside of our furniture,” said Singla. “There’s no requirement or law that chemicals need to be disclosed to consumers. We just didn’t know what kinds of chemicals were being used in couches, if they were being used, how much there was in there.”

In June, Gov. Jerry Brown directed state regulators to revise flammability standards. If the new regulations are put in place, it could be possible to buy furniture without the chemicals by summer.

Until then, there is little consumers can do to ensure their couch is free of dangerous chemicals. Cotton, down, polyester and wool usually do not contain added flame retardant because they are naturally fire-resistant, Singla said. Foam, however, is likely to contain the chemicals.

“If you bought your couch in California, it’s almost guaranteed that it contains flame retardants if it has polyurethane foam,” Singla said.

Contact Mitchell Handler [email protected].

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  • Guest

    We talked about this in chemistry class–basically all of the chem companies come up with fire retardants that BARELY are any better than the non-supplemented fabrics (like 14s to take up an open flame compared to 12s) and then lobby the government to require their usage. And then the problem is that a lot of the chemicals are toxic, particularly (and ironically) when burned. Lots of dioxins and stuff.