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Hand-Me-Down Hazard: Flame Retardants in Discarded Foam Products

On 1 January 2015 California implemented the first U.S. rule mandating that certain products containing polyurethane foam be labeled to identify whether they contain chemical flame retardants. Furniture industry experts predict flame-retardant-free couches, chairs, and other padded furnishings and products will be popular with consumers and large purchasers, and the new labeling law, known as SB 1019, is expected to have influence beyond the state’s borders, just as California’s flammability standard once drove the use of flame retardants in the rest of the country, and even other parts of the world. Crate and Barrel, IKEA, and La-Z-Boy are among the manufacturers that reportedly offer or will offer furniture with no added flame retardants.

Environmental chemists, scientists, and public health specialists interviewed for this article agree that the new labeling rule represents a great leap forward for consumers. “The consumer should always have the right to know what’s in their products, whether they’re commercial products, food, or anything else,” says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Essentially, California’s new labeling rule, and the updated flammability standard that supports it, known as TB117-2013, create one market-based solution to the U.S. problem of widespread exposure to flame retardants while maintaining fire safety. With these new rules, consumers who wish to avoid flame retardants have an option for doing so. Over time, the rules are expected to slowly reduce the health risk posed by human exposure to flame retardants used in polyurethane foam.

However, the benefits may not apply equally to all populations; the ways that discarded furniture and other foam products are handled may disproportionately influence the flame retardant exposures and health of people in disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, how these items are handled can affect the amounts of flame retardants that escape into the environment.

As of now, there are no rules or requirements that address these issues federally or in California, according to officials from California’s State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Toxic Substances Control, and CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency. Monitoring or control of flame retardants in the outdoor environment is not on the radar of many people outside the research community, says Mark La Guardia, a senior environmental scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. But he and others interviewed for this article argue that it should be