Study: Toxic Flame Retardants Found in Nearly All Tested Couches in U.S.-Wide Analysis

The most commonly found flame retardant in testing was banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s

San Francisco, CA (November 28, 2012) – Nearly all of the couches tested in a country-wide analysis contained toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals at concerning levels as high as 11 percent of the weight of the foam in the furniture, according to a new study published today in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology. The findings of the study are central to NRDC’s work over the past five years to reform California’s upholstered furniture flammability standard, TB 117, and provide additional scientific evidence of the need to implement a new standard that provides more fire safety without the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals.

“Testing revealed that my couch contains over a pound of the toxic flame retardant chemical chlorinated Tris, which was banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s” said Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, senior scientist with NRDC’s Health Program whose couch was sampled in the study. “When I bought this couch new five years ago, I had no idea it contained a cancer causing chemical. There was no warning label and there was no ingredient list, leaving me helpless as a consumer. We should have the right to protect our families from this toxic exposure, and the first step to solving this threat is for California to finally implement a safer furniture flammability standard that will protect millions of people and ensure better fire safety.”

The study, “Novel and High Volume Use of Flame Retardants in U.S. Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out,” found that 85 percent of couches tested contained toxic or untested flame retardants in their foam and all couches but one purchased in California contained measurable levels of a toxic or untested flame retardant chemical. Forty-one percent of couches tested contained the toxic chemical chlorinated Tris, which was banned from children’s pajamas three decades ago after being linked to cancer but was never banned for any other use. Since the 1970s, chlorinated Tris has been recognized as a mutagen which damages DNA.  Based on this cancer causing effect, it is now listed under California’s Prop 65 as a carcinogen. As of October, 2012, any products containing this chemical have to carry a warning label.

The second most common chemical found in the couch study was pentaBDE, which was phased out of use in 2005 in the United States because of its potential to build up in people and animals and potential toxicity. The chemical has been linked to decreased fertility, hormone disruption, lowered IQ, and hyperactivity in humans. Because people keep their couches on average 10 years or longer, many couches in people’s homes may still contain pentaBDE.

“By updating California’s flammability standard we can protect people from fires and prevent exposure to flame retardant chemicals linked to neurological and reproductive harm as well as cancer,” said Arlene Blum, PhD, co-author of the study and executive director and founder of Green Science Policy Institute. “The good news is that California is on its way and by next summer we should be able to buy furniture without flame retardants that is more fire safe.”

The results of the study also showed that there is no easy way for consumers to find whether their couch contains toxic or untested flame retardants. Of all the couches tested with a California flammability standard Technical Bulletin117 label, 98 percent were found to contain flame retardant chemicals. Of the couches with no TB 117 label, more than half (64%) also contained flame retardants.


We can reduce exposure to toxic flame retardants by acting on the following NRDC recommendations: 

  • California Governor Jerry Brown must implement TB 117-2012 as soon as possible. In June 2012, Gov. Brown directed the Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to take action on the state’s outdated 40-year-old flammability standard. The new standard, TB117-2012, is expected to change the current open-flame test to a smolder standard for fabric and increase the level of fire safety so furniture makers can meet the flammability standard without use of toxic and untested chemicals.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission must finalize the draft furniture flammability standard to protect public from toxic chemicals. Similar to the proposed California standard, the CPSC standard will be a fabric smolder standard to increase fire safety without the use of toxic chemicals. The agency should finalize its draft standard right away.
  • Congress must also support and pass the Safe Chemicals Act, which would update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. Under the current law, chemicals are presumed to be safe until found harmful, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little power to ban even notoriously deadly chemicals like asbestos. The reason toxic chemicals, like chlorinated Tris, have been allowed to remain on the market thirty years after they were recognized as carcinogens, is because of the failing of TSCA. The proposed legislation being considered will give EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals, including flame retardants.

More Information About Flame Retardants:

For decades, an ineffective California flammability standard, TB 117, has resulted in the foam inside our sofas, recliners and love seats being saturated with toxic flame retardants. Not surprisingly, this large volume of chemicals does not stay in the foam but slowly evaporates and attaches to dust particles that are ingested or inhaled by us, our children and pets. This is why toddlers who play on the floor and cats who groom their fur have much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies as compared to adults. In fact, house dust in California homes and Californian children are the most polluted in the world with toxic flame retardant chemicals.

Not only are flame retardant chemicals harmful to human health, no data shows significant fire safety benefit from them. In fact studies have found that when foam containing flame retardants burns, it creates more carbon dioxide, soot and smoke – the leading cause of residential fire deaths – making such fires even more dangerous.

See Sarah Janssen’s blog for more information about flame retardants here

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