Finding toxins in between the couch cushions?

I would have thought twice about taking home a friend’s couch when he moved away if I had known that I was bringing approximately a pound of cancer causing chemicals into my home with it last fall. On Monday, I’ll be joining a friend with a cable subscription and some non-cushioned seating to watch the HBO movie Toxic Hot Seat and find out how all those chemicals got in my couch to begin with. But there’s also good news: yesterday, California Governor Brown approved revisions to the state regulation that originally drove manufacturers to include all those toxic chemicals in my couch.

Image removed.

Since I joined NRDC a year ago, I have been repeatedly astounded by the often unregulated, hazardous chemicals that make it into our home without our notice – even those of us who are trying to avoid unnecessary chemical exposure.  Amazingly, #2 on NRDC’s list of the stupidest uses of chemicals in consumer products, toxic flame retardants in furniture are driven by an out-of-date California regulation even though they quite possibly do more harm than good!  But over the past year, I’ve been following NRDC’s efforts to help revise that law – Technical Bulletin 117-2013 (TB117-2013) – which will improve fire safety and eliminate the need for chemicals to be used in couch cushions and many other kinds of furniture and children’s products.  And now it is here! 

In March, I went to the public hearing held by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) which is responsible for updating furniture flammability standards.  I was moved to hear firefighters talk about their profession’s increased rates of cancer due to exposure to a “chemical cocktail” every time they enter a burning building. I listened to eloquent scientists explain how brominated and chlorinated flame retardants produce cancer-causing toxins when they burn and how these chemicals bioaccumulate in blood, fatty tissue and breast milk so that they build up in our bodies over the course of our lifetimes.  Over and over, I heard speakers explain that the new standards requiring smoldering tests focused on the outer fabric are much better indicators of fire safety as opposed to the previous requirement that the cushion foam inside the furniture be able to resist an open flame – if a flame has gotten deep into the cushion of a couch, you already have a big fire!

Many of these speakers’ stories have been encapsulated in a movie that comes out next week on Monday, November 25 at 9:00pm ET/PT – HBO’s Toxic Hot Seat.  The movie is an eye opening exposé that follows a courageous group of firefighters, mothers, journalists, scientists, politicians, and activists as they fight to uncover how these chemicals got into our homes and our bodies even though they don’t stop the spread of fires. You’ll follow the story of the Chicago Tribune Journalists who investigated the issue and made it a national headline; scientists who study these chemicals and their link to lower IQ in children, thyroid disease, infertility, cancer and other health problems; and the activists who are working to change the laws which have made it legal to include suspected carcinogens in everyday household items.

And now that we have a new flammability standard for upholstered furniture, starting in January, we may be able to buy furniture produced without toxic cushions in California and across the country!