Playing on Poisons-Harmful Flame Retardants in Furniture for Children

Playing on Poisons - Harmful Flame Retardants in Children's Furniture

ACAT News Release | ACAT Publications | More information | National Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety

Alaska Community Action on Toxics participated in a nationwide testing and report with Center for the Environmental Health (CEH) on toxics found in common furniture products made for children. We purchased a Spiderman chair in August 2013 at a Walmart store in Anchorage, Alaska. This chair was tested and found to contain the flame retardant Firemaster 550.

Our testing shows that about 90% of children’s foam chairs and couches contain harmful flame retardant chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems including cancer, infertility, and altering the functions of our bodies’ natural hormones. There is no reason children should be exposed to these chemicals from their furniture.

Most parents would never suspect that colorful children’s furniture adorned with Mickey Mouse and Dora the Explorer could expose their children to flame retardant chemicals that can cause serious health problems.

Flame retardant chemicals in children’s furniture give us the worst of both worlds: they expose our children and families to potentially serious health problems, yet they do not provide safety benefits in fires.

A new rule about furniture flammability will be implemented in January 2014, and will give companies an easy way to make these products safer, without using any harmful flame retardant chemicals. Parents will be looking to companies that sell these products to offer safer, flame retardant-free products as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, parents should avoid children’s furniture made with polyurethane foam, and look for alternatives made from wood, canvas, wicker or those filled with wool, cotton, or other natural materials. Products with polyester fiberfill are also generally made without chemical flame retardants.

This chair, purchased at Walmart in Anchorage, Alaska, was tested and found to contain the flame retardant Firemaster 550 which caused obesity and disrupted normal hormone function in tests with laboratory animals and tests with living cells.

This chair, purchased at Walmart in Anchorage, Alaska, was tested and found to contain the flame retardant Firemaster 550 which caused obesity and disrupted normal hormone function in tests with laboratory animals and tests with living cells.


Q:           What did your groups do?

A:            During July and August 2013, we purchased children’s furniture from major retailers throughout the US and Canada. We had the furniture tested for flame retardant chemicals at a Duke University laboratory. The testing found about 90% of the furniture contains flame retardants linked to serious health problems.

Q:           What kind of furniture is this?

A:            We tested kids’ chairs, sofas, and other items, including many that are designed with children’s characters like Disney Princesses, Dora the Explorer, Elmo, Spiderman and others. These are products kids play and sit on at homes and in daycares across North America.

Q:           Where were the products purchased from?

A:            Our groups purchased products from major retailers including Target, Walmart, Kmart, Babies “R” Us and Toys “R” Us, buybuy Baby and others. Products were from 13 states and 2 provinces in Canada: California, New York, Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Montana and Toronto and Charlottetown, Canada.

Q:           Why test kids’ furniture for flame retardants?

A:            Children are especially vulnerable to the health hazards posed by these chemicals. For example, their bodies and brains are growing and are especially susceptible to chemicals that can disrupt the activity of their natural hormones. A recent study has shown that children have three times higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies than the levels found in their mothers.

Q:           Who did the testing and what kind of tests were done?

A:            Dr. Heather Stapleton’s lab at Duke University did the testing. Dr. Stapleton is an Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry and is one of the country’s leading experts on testing for flame retardant chemicals in consumer products. Her work in this area has been published in leading peer-reviewed science journals and has been featured in national news reports. Dr. Stapleton uses mass spectrometry to analyze products for a wide range of known flame retardant chemicals. We sent foam samples to the lab that were identified only by a code number, so the lab did could not identify which products the foam came from.

Q:           What did the testing find? What are the health problems associated with these chemicals?

A:            Dr. Stapleton’s testing found four flame retardant chemicals in 38 of the 42 foam products:

  • Firemaster 550 was found in 22 items; it is a mixture of four chemicals, and has been linked to obesity and disruption of the bodies’ natural hormone functioning.
  • TCPP (Tris) was found in 15 items; animal studies have linked TCPP to genetic damage and changes in the length of the menstrual cycle.
  • TDCPP (chlorinated Tris) was found in 2 items; TDCPP is identified as a chemical known to cause cancer by the state of California and the National Research Council. Studies have also linked exposures to genetic damage, effects on natural hormones, and damage to developing embryos. In the 1970’s, TDCPP was removed from kids’ pajamas, yet it is still widely used in other products today.
  • Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate was found in 1 item; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has summarized the limited toxicology testing done with this flame retardant mixture. Health concerns identified in the EPA summary include decreased fertility and abnormal menstrual cycles.

Q:           What do you know about the four products without flame retardants? Why were they different?

A:            The four products without identifiable flame retardant chemicals were three items of foam furniture similar to the majority of other as well as a furniture style child’s sized chair from upstate Massachusetts. We do not know if the four foam items contain new, unidentifiable flame retardant chemicals or if they are truly flame retardant-free.

Q:           Why do these products contain flame retardants?

A:            Children’s products, like other furniture, contain flame retardants due to a decades-old, outdated California flammability standard called TB 117. California is such a large market that companies make all of their furniture in compliance with the state standard, rather than make a separate product line just for California. Recently fire safety scientists and government regulators have found that TB 117 does not promote fire safety, but does expose our children and families to harmful chemical flame retardants. California is poised to implement an updated standard on January 1, 2014. The new standard will give companies an easy way to meet the fire safety standard without the use of harmful chemicals.

Q:           What do we recommend these companies do?

We want retailers to take immediate action to alert their suppliers that they will stock only flame retardant chemical-free children’s furniture and other children’s products beginning in January, 2014 and that they clearly identify these products in the stores as flame retardant chemical-free.