Q: Are there still harmful flame retardants in furniture?
A: When the three little pigs built their homes, the wisest of the bunch was preoccupied with withstanding wind damage. No doubt if the wolf had had a flame-thrower, the friendly ungulates would have opted for some fire-retardant protection. But at what cost?
You can thank the 70s and that decade's love for flammable synthetic fabrics and plastic-encased electronics for increasing the volume of dodgy brominated (or bromine-based) flame retardants.
In the last few years, a group of brominated bad boys called PBDEs have been put on the hot seat. As news of their nastily persistent toxicity spread, bans on various PBDEs have been enacted in countries across the globe, including Canada.
Environment Canada had the good sense to finally recognize them as toxic (they're tied to cancer, brain damage, reproductive problems and more). While the feds, after much foot-dragging, promised to include decaBDE in the list of PBDEs being phased out, the voluntary phase-out of deca in furniture isn't complete until the end of 2012. However, Crate and Barrel and others have already phased them out.
The emerging problem is that PBDE replacements have turned out to have enviro baggage of their own. Newer-wave brominated flame retardants are now turning up at record levels in our air and wildlife, like Firemaster 550 (TBB) and Firemaster BZ-54 (TBPH).
Researchers have found the chems from those two flame retardants in the vast majority of air samples taken in towns around the Great Lakes. And last checked, environmental levels of the compounds happened to be doubling every 13 months.
The concern with these is that they were fast-tracked onto the market as PBDE replacements, and researchers are still in the dark about their long-term risks.
On the brighter side, a good handful of major furniture producers have refused to use any and all brominated flame retardants for eons now. Ikea phased them out by 2002, and Canadian foam supplier Foamite went BFR-free in 1996.
I just wish the story ended there. It doesn't. You see, weary readers, there are other kinds of naughty flame retardants on the market that aren't bromine based.
Ikea was caught with its Ektorp pants down when it was discovered that the company was using chlorinated tris (banned from children's PJs in the 70s) in some of its furniture. When that scandal hit, Ikea said it was phasing out tris by mid-2010 - definitely a good thing, considering that California recently declared the substance a carcinogen, ordering that products containing it must carry warning labels.
Today, Ikea's official stance is that it only uses flame retardants when legally required to do so.
At best, the company covers furniture with naturally flame-retardant fabrics like wool and fills certain mattresses with latex. With foam furniture, though, reps say unspecified organic phosphorous/nitrogen-containing compounds or melamine or chloro-phosphorous compounds are used that meet Ikea's restrictions against carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins.
Of course, it's tough to say without further specifics and studies whether more of today's flame retardants will end up being tomorrow's PBDEs.
Your safest choice is to ask for totally flame-retardant-free options. Foamite sells several foams that are 100 per cent flame-retardant-free. You can request some from custom upholsterers (like Bellfiori, Coja) and local reupholsterers like Rewrap on Dundas East, Princess Upholstery on Pape, the Big Stuff Reupholstery on Dufferin and Avenue Upholstery at Av and Lawrence.
Keep in mind that soy-based foams tend to contain flame retardants, too. You just have to inquire about which ones they use.
All-natural latex, on the other hand, is totally flame-retardant-free, but it's harder to find in the 21st century and a good deal more expensive.
By the way, most of our exposure to PBDEs comes via household dust, so technically if you dust, wash your hands and vacuum often, you can get a grip on existing flame retardants lurking in your dust bunnies.
But if you want persistent flame retardants gone for good, email Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Environment Minister Peter Kent (email@example.com) today. If the feds want to get tough on toxins, as they claim, they'd better put this fire out.
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