Chemicals on furniture a hazard to our health, safety

Flame-retardants add to health, fire risks

December 3, 2012 

Being a mother is about choices, as any mom will attest. We want what is best for our children, whether choosing a school or summer camp, or deciding when they can have a cellphone or be on Facebook.

I have four children, ranging in age from 6 to 17. Years ago, I made a deliberate choice for the health of our family. I wanted to make sure the products we surrounded ourselves with — from food to household cleaners to health and beauty products — would be free of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to alarming increases in cancers, asthma, learning and developmental disabilities, diabetes, reproductive illnesses and many more frightening conditions.

I buy local, fresh foods from the farmer's market, preparing safe and healthy green beans and mashed potatoes for dinner. I have learned how to make safe household cleaners using common ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. I have read and reread the list of compounds in beauty products to make sure they contain no carcinogens.

But recently I learned of a danger in my household that is beyond my control, something my family — and yours — use every day without fail: our beloved couch, an Ashley leather sofa that we bought in February 2010.

Last year, through my work with the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, I was approached about participating in a national scientific study on the dangers of flame-retardants in couches. I unzipped one of my couch cushions, cut a small section of foam and mailed it to scientists at Duke University and the University of California-Berkeley to be tested.

When I learned the results many months later, I was devastated. Our couch tested positive for a chemical called TDCPP, or chlorinated Tris, the same toxic additive that was removed from baby pajamas in 1977 and is now listed as a carcinogen under California's Proposition 65. This chemical has been associated with various cancers in numerous studies, and here it was in my home.

I'm not alone in this predicament. The study in which I participated was recently released to the public, and the findings are sobering: 85 percent of the couches that were examined contained toxic or untested flame-retardants.

"That's not a big deal," you might say, pointing to the fact that the foam is covered by a leather sheath. But here's the truth: Particles from this chemical seep through these covers, moving from the foam to air and dust and, finally, to people. We breathe them in when we sit on the couch; we ingest them when we bring our hands to our mouths. It's no coincidence that toddlers, whose playground is so often the living room floor, carry higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than do adults.

The bitter irony of all this is that these chemicals have been proven to not reduce fire hazards as they were intended. When furniture with these products burns, it creates more smoke and soot, the leading causes of death and injury during fires, making the blaze more dangerous.

In June, an investigative series by the Chicago Tribune uncovered a complex web of lies that the chemical industry has used in promoting these products, including giving false testimony about a dead infant before a government committee.

The International Association of Firefighters and many burn doctors and victim advocacy groups are working to hold the industry accountable for its deception.

If being a mother is all about choices, imagine how frustrated and powerless I feel every time I see my children sitting on the couch watching television or playing video games, knowing that their health could be compromised by a piece of furniture containing toxic chemicals that are unnecessary and useless in preventing fires.

That's why I am committed to taking action on behalf of my family. I am joining with tens of thousands of other moms across the country in calling for a ban on these chemicals in our furniture, and for reforms of federal laws that should be protecting us from harmful chemicals.

There are safer alternatives.

It's time that the chemical industry and our elected officials use common sense and update these antiquated regulations to keep up with the times.

Jamie Austad lives in Richmond.

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