Don’t get burned by flame retardants

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Q I’m worried about toxic flame retardants in my furniture but can’t afford to replace them all at once. What should I start with?

A It’s kind of creepy, isn’t it? We’re surrounded by all these invisible chemicals that are supposed to keep us safe from harm (well, at least from bursting into flames) when in the end they’ve turned out to be the ones hurting us.

Polybrominated fire retardants (aka PBDEs) are some seriously bad players. They mess with thyroid and liver function, and even low levels have been shown to affect fertility. The whole PBDE family is considered toxic by Environment Canada.

Not good, considering they’re everywhere: in plastic casings (think electronics, wiring), furniture foam (couches and pillows) and fabrics (upholstery, drapes). They’ve even been used in teddy bear stuffing!

And despite what manufacturers like to tell us, these babies don’t stay put. They’ve been found in wildlife, breast milk, umbilical cords you name it.

Yes, a lot of that comes from factories, but it also breaks down into the dust that coats every surface in our homes. I hate to fear-monger, friends, but there’s no way to sugarcoat this stuff. Still, there are measures you can take to minimize your exposure.

The first thing you can do is start cleaning more regularly. Sounds trite, but it’s important. Wash that dust right out of your home! But don’t pull out those chemical cleaners. I mean dust with a damp cloth, and vacuum regularly.

As for what piece of furniture may be giving you the biggest PBDE grief, it all depends on how old said object is, and what brand it is.

Let’s start with your couch. Ikea’s been PBDE-free since 2002, so if you bought your sofa (or any furniture) from the retailer after that date you’re in the clear. Otherwise, I might consider updating it.

Crumbling couch cushions can kick up a lot of harmful dust not good if you’re sitting on it every day! especially if you have an old beater with foam peaking out of worn-out bits.

FYI, two major suppliers of the chemical stopped making the particularly nasty type of PBDE used in furniture foam back in 2004 (the one called penta-), about when Health Canada got industry to promise it would phase it out.

But Health Canada says some furniture makers might still be using it, since, according to HC anyway, alternatives aren’t readily available. Really? Then why have some manufacturers been off that drugs for years already? Funny, that.

The kind used on heavy-duty plastics like computer casings and telephone handsets (called octa-) was also supposed to be phased out as of 2004, so if you have a newer computer you should be in the clear for at least that particular type of flame retardant.

But if you want to know which electronics companies have already said no to the whole family of the nasty flame retardants, check out Greenpeace’s guide to green electronics (

By the way, I called up two major mattress makers to check up on the use of brominated fire retardants, and both Sealy and Serta say they don’t use the stuff. Instead, Sealy uses rayon (wood-pulp-based) fibres treated with ammonium polyphosphate, a mineral that’s considered non-toxic. (Soon, Sealy will be using a type of rayon that needs no added flame retardant.)

However, other mattress companies may still use PBDEs, Best to call up your brand’s consumer assistance hotline and ask directly. Be extra-cautious if you have an old-generation or cheapy memory-foam mattress.

Beyond flame retardants, I’d also be wary of anything treated with Scotchguard or Stainmaster before 2002. That’s the year the stain repellant’s maker, 3M, took its super-persistent ingredient, PFOS, out of its formula.

This week catch Adria Vasil on

Rogers Television Friday (April 27) at 11 am, 5 and 11 pm

First Canadian Place for a talk and signing Friday (April 27) at 12:15 and 1:15 pm

Green Living Show at the NOW booth (#1219) Saturday (April 28) from 11 am to 1 pm

Live with Arlene Bynon on AM 640 Sunday (April 29) at 2 pm

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