Chemicals in furniture target of Calif. lawmakers

by Victoria Colliver, San Francisco Chronicle

Judy Levin’s couch may not actively be trying to kill her, but it’s far from a benevolent presence in her home.

Levin, of Oakland, had her 20-year-old couch tested for toxic chemicals and was upset to learn it contains two flame retardants – V6 and TCEP, tris (2-carboxyethyl) phosphine. TCEP has since been listed by the state as a carcinogen under Proposition 65.

But possibly more upsetting to Levin is the realization that there’s not much she can do about it.

The foam in furniture sold in California has to meet flammability standards set by state regulators in 1975. The cheapest way for furniture makers do that is by using chemicals, many of which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and other health concerns, but are not banned.

"It’s not a problem you can shop your way out of," said Levin, pollution prevention director at the Center for Environmental Health. "We don’t have a choice."

But now the state has the chance to change that. The Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials is holding a hearing Tuesday on the environmental and human health impacts of flame retardant chemicals.

Several attempts to change the state’s flammability standard over the years were thwarted by strong lobbying from the powerful chemical industry.

Gov. Jerry Brown stepped up the process last week by calling on regulators to revise the guidelines, known as Technical Bulletin 117, to reduce chemical use in furniture. New regulations could be ready in draft form for review by early to mid-August.

Studies have shown Californians have among the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies worldwide.

A pilot study published last year showed pregnant women at San Francisco General Hospital had among the highest levels in the world of flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. A state ban on two widely used PBDEs went into place in 2008, but the chemicals persist in products still used today.

"We carry many times higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in our house dust and in our bodies," said Dr. Sarah Janssen, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and assistant professor and reproductive health researcher at UCSF.

The chemicals account for 3 to 5 percent of weight in household furniture and other products, so 1 to 2 pounds of these substances can be found in the average home, said Arlene Blum, a chemist and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.

Exposure to banned chemicals continues because people keep furniture for a long time. The average couch has three different owners of 10 years each, Blum said.

Blum lived without a couch for a while until she managed to find an organic one that meets fire safety standards but doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. She admits such products are difficult and costly to acquire: "You either have to buy a very expensive organic couch or a couch made before 1975 that was never reupholstered."

Levin tries not to think about the chemicals in her couch too much. "You can be vigilant – vacuum, mop and wash your hands a lot," Levin said. "But ultimately we’re still ingesting flame retardants daily. Unknowingly."

Ways people can reduce exposure to toxic chemicals:

Read labels:
— Upholstered furniture and products containing polyurethane foam typically are labeled that they meet the California furniture flammability standard, called Technical Bulletin 117. Such furniture is likely to contain flame retardants that are toxic or untested.

Try to:
— Wash your hands frequently. Hand-to-mouth contact is a major path for human exposure to flame retardants, lead and pesticides that are found in house dust.
— Vacuum often (try using a high-efficiency particulate arresting, or HEPA, filter) and wet mop to reduce dust.

Consider buying:
— Furniture and baby products that contain polyester, down, wool or cotton. They are unlikely to add flame retardant chemicals. Other options include wooden or other furniture without foam filling, such as some cotton futons.