By Ross Endicott
Owner, Endicott Home Furnishings
The history of chemical flame retardants in household furniture dates back to 1975, when chemical companies successfully lobbied California — the single largest state economy in the U.S.— to require the use of unproven flame retardants in all residential furniture for safety reasons. The law required foam used in upholstered furniture to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. This law then became standard across the country. As a result, home sofas could be laced with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals.
All of the chemicals used as flame retardants were eventually deemed carcinogenic and placed on California’s list of banned carcinogens, Proposition 65. After California passed Prop 65 — the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 — chemical companies simply switched the formulations until the next flame retardant compound was also banned.
Numerous studies have shown that flame retardants embedded in household furniture leach into our homes in the form of dust and then accumulate in the body. They also drift into rivers and streams, and into marine life. Smoke from retardant-laced furniture flames also has been linked to chronic disease in firefighters.
Not only are these chemicals carcinogenic, retardants do not even provide meaningful protection, a finding uncovered in a 2012 investigative series by The Chicago Tribune and highlighted in the documentary "Toxic Hot Seat." Flame retardants have never been effective in preventing a fire in a home setting; furniture containing flame retardants catches fire just as quickly as furniture without these chemicals.
In reality, what makes upholstery effectively fire-resistant is the use of certain batting and inner materials between the foam and the outer fabric. Well-built furniture has used these very same materials for decades. Adding chemicals to the foam inside does nothing to help prevent a fire.
Today, there is no reason to sell furniture made with flame retardant foam because foam without chemical flame retardants is widely available to any store through its suppliers. Most retailers — from Macy's to IKEA — have already moved away from flame retardants.
Eliminating toxic chemical flame retardants from household furniture will benefit the health of all Maine consumers. It is important to be informed about whether your furniture contains these chemicals to avoid the untold financial burdens from health consequences and pollution of our land, rivers and Gulf of Maine seafood. No one can undo what has already happened, but we can make healthy, informed choices in the future, when choosing furniture for our homes.