A new study, lead by Duke University, has found more than half of couches in the U.S. contain potentially toxic flame retardants inside their foam.
The study says the chemicals can pose risks to humans as they migrate from the foam inside the furniture into household dust.
Local 4 Consumer Expert Ruth Spencer met with a mother whose couch was analyzed as part of the national study. She told Ruth her two children have spent plenty of time on the big comfortable sofa in her living room.
Lisa Turner's couch was one of eight from Michigan that were tested, among 102 in the entire country. The study found more than half of the sofas have foam that contains potentially toxic chemicals. It found the chemicals were most common in couches that are five years old or less: 94% contained them.
Lisa's couch tested positive for some of those toxic ingredients.
"So, when you found out about this, you must have just flipped your lid?" Ruth asked. "I did," said Lisa, nodding with regret.
Possible Health Concerns
The study says flame retardants are linked to hormone disruption, cancer, and neurological toxicity in hundreds of animal studies and some human research. "I was very disgusted, and scared, you know, concerned for my children's health," said Lisa.
The American Chemistry Council published a statement on its website that says in part, "There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems."
Why Use the Chemicals?
Manufacturers use the flame retardants to meet flammability requirements set in California. Because that state is so large, its standards often become national requirements by default. While the American Chemistry Council would argue fire prevention is a big reason to use flame retardants, others disagree.
Jeff Gearhart of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor questions whether those standards are really having the intended impact.
"There is not a clear fire-safety benefit to the standards that are in place that are driving this chemical usage," said Gearhart during a Skype interview. He also said, "When there are fires... these chemicals actually make the fires more toxic. They make it more hazardous for firefighters, they make it more hazardous for people who are in their homes."
What Can Homeowners Do
Gearhart says it’s just about impossible for people to know if the toxins might be in the couches in their homes. One of the study's authors says items with polyester, down, wool, or cotton fillings are less likely to contain flame retardants. Otherwise, to prevent contact, people should limit the dust in their homes.
They can fight dust by using vacuums with HEPA filters and wet mopping. Couch owners should also make sure they keep their furniture in good shape.
"If there is a tear in the couch, making sure you patch it, so you don't have exposure..." warned Jeff Gearhart of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.
Local 4 Consumer Expert Ruth Spencer asked Lisa if the industry claims there's no proven link to health problems, is that good enough?
"I think they absolutely need to err on the conservative side. I really don't know why we need all these chemicals in our everyday products," Lisa answered.
Fighting For Change
In the end, Jeff Gearhart and Lisa Turner agree, they'd like to see the regulations change to limit toxic substances in our homes.
Gearhart is part of the move to push Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin to co-sponsor changes to federal legislation.
That's a movement Lisa Turner is supporting, "I've signed petitions- I've emailed the senators." she said.
As for her couch, she says she's keeping it. "I don't really think there's a lot of options out there to buy something that's not toxic."