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My Toxic Couch’s Days Are Numbered: New Furniture Flammability Standard Proposed

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I spend a lot of my weekends snuggled up on the couch with my family, but since I found out my couch is toxic, I’ve been spending a lot more time on the floor.

I recently learned that the foam inside my couch contains the carcinogenic chemical, Chlorinated Tris. Suddenly the leisure time my family spends lounging and reading books, watching movies, and building forts with the cushions became much less fun. I used to serve snacks to my five year old there. Now that I know it’s poisoning us, I insist on eating at the table or on the floor and try to spend less time on the couch.

Chances are, if your couch has standard foam, you have a toxic couch too.

A nationwide study of 102 couches revealed that my couch, among others tested, contains OVER A POUND of chlorinated Tris, a cancer-causing chemical removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s and now listed on California’s Proposition 65 list of carcinogens. The same study found over 80 percent of couches contain one of at least five different types of flame retardant chemicals, none of which have been shown to be effective or safe.

This all started with a nearly 40-year-old California regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) that requires furniture to meet a strict flammability standard using an open flame test on the foam. The easiest and cheapest way to apply the standard has been to douse the foam with flame retardants, resulting in pounds of toxic and untested chemicals in most every piece of upholstered furniture sold today. But the problem with the current standard is that fires don’t start in the foam but on the outer covering, often times by cigarettes left smoldering on furniture fabric. Even worse, TB117 has been shown to provide no real benefit in a fire. In fact, furniture treated with flame retardants doesn’t burn any slower and the smoke and gases released from the fire are actually more toxic, putting firefighters’ health at greater risk for cancer.

In addition to being ineffective, many flame retardant chemicals have been shown to be harmful to human health and the environment. The widespread use of flame retardants has resulted in widespread exposure in humans. Most Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world and children in California contain some of the highest levels ever measured.

But flame retardants aren’t just polluting our homes—they are polluting the world, literally. During manufacturing, use and disposal, these chemicals are released into the environment where they can be found in air, water, and wildlife. Birds, fish, mammals including whales and dolphins and animals living far from sources of exposure, such as polar bears in the Arctic, have been found to have flame retardants in their bodies.

Exposure to toxic flame retardants such as the PBDEs has been linked to real and measurable health impacts. Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies. Children exposed in the womb have altered brain development resulting in delayed physical development, lower IQs and attention problems. Other studies have linked flame retardants to male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls. A recent study in animals has linked flame retardants to autism and obesity.

Even more alarming: All of this harm has been found with just a handful of flame retardants that have been tested – the vast majority have never been adequately tested for safety.

Because of weaknesses in the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law meant to protect us from harmful chemical substances, chemicals are presumed to be safe until proven guilty, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little power to ban even notoriously deadly flame retardant chemicals like asbestos. New legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act, is being considered, which would give EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals, including flame retardants.

We can’t shop your way out of this problem- everyone buying organic alternatives to standard couches isn’t an economically feasible option. However, better regulation of chemicals can address it and fortunately, toxic couches are soon to be a thing of the past.

A revised furniture flammability standard TB 117-2013 was recently proposed for public comment. This new standard is smolder test of the furniture fabric and will provide better fire safety by addressing the most common cause of fires in furniture – cigarettes – at the place a fire would start – the outside covering. It will also mean that no chemicals will need to be used to meet the new standard – 85 percent of fabric coverings already meet the standard!

This is a huge win for millions of people in California and across the country whose health will be improved when we get rid of these toxic chemicals in our couches. Please join NRDC and let the State know that you support their efforts during the 45 day comment period. The new regulation could be in place by the end of the summer. I look forward to being able to buy a toxic free couch then!

In the meantime, here are NRDC’s recommendations to reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals:


  • Vacuum often (with an HEPA filter) and wet-mop to reduce build-up of dust on your floors.
  • Dust with a damp cloth or a microfiber cloth to avoid kicking up dust particles in the air as you work. For example, don’t use a feather duster as this only releases dust particles into the air.
  • Wash hands frequently, (with plain soap and water!) as hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a major pathway for exposure.
  • Don’t eat on your couch until it is toxic-free!

Video animation: Perrin Ireland

Sarah Janssen About the Author: Sarah Janssen is a senior scientist in the health and environment program at NRDC in San Francisco. In her capacity as a scientist with NRDC, Dr. Janssen provides scientific expertise for policy and regulatory decisions on a number of toxic chemicals, including hormone-disrupting substances which interfere with fertility and reproduction. Her work has included research on flame retardants, cosmetics, plastics and plasticizers, breast cancer and threats to adult reproductive health and child development. Dr. Janssen is board-certified in preventive medicine, with a subspecialty in occupational and environmental medicine. She is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco where she is conducting clinical research, and she works part-time at Kaiser Permanente of Northern California. She completed her M.D. and Ph.D. in molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2001, a Masters in Public Health at UC-Berkeley in 2005 and residency training at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Janssen is the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications and book chapters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. vapur 10:56 am 02/11/2013

    You neglected to mention mattresses.

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  2. 2. Rev.Corvette 11:21 am 02/11/2013

    I think we all know that our couches are bad!

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  3. 3. Soccerdad 1:17 pm 02/11/2013

    Thanks for reminding me about the toxic couch issue. This is currently number 10,257 on my worry list, right after getting cut by a blade of grass. I think I’m going to move it up 100 places to 10,157.

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  4. 4. curiouswavefunction 3:35 pm 02/11/2013

    I am afraid I find this article to be an unfortunate example of chemophobia: the fear of anything that has the word “chemical” (in this case, “fire retardant”) in it. I have some specific criticism of this post on my blog here. I appreciate the author’s intentions but I just don’t think that the evidence is strong enough to suggest a credible link between chlorinated tris and cancer.

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  5. 5. mjbates5 12:46 pm 02/13/2013

    wow…this is so eye opening and explained in such a easy-to understand format. Thank you for working so hard on this cause!

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  6. 6. wam2112 1:57 pm 02/13/2013

    The bottom line is that we do not fully understand the primary environmental or health effects of many/most of the industrial chemicals in our products and our environment, much less the downstream effects. And industry often thwarts attempts to gain a better understanding out of fear of the effects on their bottom line by manipulating the political process and the oversight agencies. Thanks for your post!

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  7. 7. nchapman 5:42 pm 02/14/2013

    There’s some excellent advice – and if I had a young kid, I would immediately rethink the amount of time they spent on the couch. But as the article suggests, the only really effective solution will be legislative change to limit this kind of thing.

    (I fairly mystified by Soccerdad’s comment. You think that if worrying about toxic chemicals in his couch was 10,000th on his to do list, making a snarky comment here would be something like 1 million, but there seems to be no limit on people’s eagerness to be disagreeable and, frankly, a bit dim on the internet.)

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  8. 8. hanmeng 11:36 am 07/15/2013

    Dr. Janssen, why don’t you respond to curiouswavefunction’s criticism? Your failure does not speak well for the NRDC.

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