Can your couch give you cancer?

Couch cancer
CC BY 2.0 Édouard Manet/Wikimedia Commons

Drenching furniture in chemicals to make it safer probably wasn’t the best idea.

In 1975, in an effort to protect people from igniting their furniture by way of neglected cigarettes, California enacted a law called technical bulletin 117, or TB117. It required furniture manufacturers to treat their goods with flame retardant chemicals; it inspired most companies to begin treating all of their furniture rather than create a special line only for California. It seemed like the right thing to do.

“After the regulation was passed most furniture included flame retardants,” Heather Stapleton, associate professor and program chair of environmental health at Duke University, tells Time magazine. Couches, chairs, baby seats, even nap mats and mattress pads and more were treated. “Later on it was found that these flame retardants could migrate out of the products and into people.”

Flame retardants and other chemicals are slowly released from furniture and make their way onto the floor and other surfaces, from where they can be inhaled and or touched and inadvertently eaten (especially problematic for pets, and for kids who crawl around on the floor and put fingers and toys in their mouths). We've talked about this time and time again on TreeHugger, yet it bears repeating.

Stapleton and others say there is plenty of research suggesting these chemicals may present a number of health problems, including cancer. In 2013 and again in 2014, California backtracked by updating TB117 with new regulations with an aim to ease the amount of fire retardants in furniture.

How much is too much and how much a certain piece of furniture may emit is hard to say – which is also to say that the question posed in the title here doesn't have a definitive answer, there are too many variables. But it's a valid question, and hints at a definite "maybe." And we are exposed to such an unruly parade of chemical compounds every day aside from those coming from furniture – we've got hormone-disruptors in personal care products and synthetic compounds in food and even clothing. So pervasive are these chemicals and their effects that the European Union estimates the health care costs range into the hundreds of billions, reports Time.

The prudent course of action is to address all the sources since it's so hard to say what exactly is causing the most harm and just what is a deleterious dose. “Just as no doctor can tell you how many cigarettes you can smoke before getting cancer, it’s tough to say what level of exposure to flame retardant chemicals will lead to potential ill effects,” notes Time. “The data we have argues for a strategy that reduces exposures,” says Asa Bradman, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The half life of some of these chemicals is five to seven years, meaning it takes that amount of time for the concentration of that chemical in your body to fall by 50 percent,” Stapleton adds. “And studies have shown that 90 percent of the American population has these flame retardant chemicals in their bodies.”

Most manufacturers are now aware of the problem of toxic flame-retardants and research shows that couches don’t ignite into a ball of flames without them: “Studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups have found that flame retardant chemicals in furniture are ineffective at preventing, limiting, or slowing down fires,” says NRDC.

But older couches may still have them, and what’s worse, as the furniture breaks down the chemicals are more likely to escape into the environment.

And alas, flame-retardants aren’t the only devil lurking in the divan. According to Time:

Some anti-microbial treatments are also concerning, Blum says. So, too, are stain and water-repelling treatments. “These chemicals, particularly fluorinated compounds, never break down in the environment – never – and they’ve been linked with liver and kidney cancer, and reproductive and developmental problems,” Blum explains.

“Consumers love these [stain-repellant] treatments, but we’re concerned,” adds Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “We don’t have adequate studies on the human health effects, but from animal studies we know some of these chemicals may have immunosuppressant and immunotoxic effects, and are also linked to cancer and developmental effects.”

So what to do? When buying new furniture check for what treatments have been applied; since stain-repellants and antimicrobial treatments have traditionally been considered a desirable feature, their presence will likely be noted.

NRDC says that, unfortunately, upholstered furniture produced before 2013 – especially pieces with labels that reference TB117 – will likely have flame-retardant chemicals. Furniture labels that mention TB117-2013 denote that the furniture was manufactured after flame retardants were no longer required, but this doesn't necessarily mean the piece doesn't contain them. Furniture made after California’s 2014 Toxic Furniture Right-to-Know Bill was passed must state whether they have any added flame-retardant chemicals.

If you have an older couch that needs reupholstering, be sure to select retardant-free fabric; you can also have the stuffing replaced with retardant-free foam which would make the whole thing safer. Since the chemicals glue themselves to dust particles, vacuum and dust frequently (just what you wanted to hear); lay down a blanket for babies on the floor and clean it in between play sessions.

With knowledge and some precautions hopefully your couch will not be doling out diseases. And as the article in Time concludes, "the more consumers ask questions and demand chemical-free couches, the safer these products will become."

Can your couch give you cancer?
Drenching furniture in chemicals to make it safer probably wasn’t the best idea.

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