Hot topic: Toxic flame retardants in your home and how to avoid them


A hot topic in the media right now is the toxicity of chemical flame retardants that are in our furniture and are migrating out into our environment.  Tests have shown that Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world, with children in California containing some of the highest levels ever tested!  These toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many baby products including (but not limited to) mattresses, nursing pillows, carriers and changing table pads (scary!)  Recent studies have found that most couches in America have over 1 pound of the toxic chemical Chlorinated Tris inside them.  Chlorinated Tris was used as a flame retardant on the fabric of children’s pajamas until the 1970’s when it was recognized as a mutagen which damages DNA and can cause cancer. So why is this chemical still in our furniture?!  Well, it’s because it is the law.  California has the most strict  flammability standard, TB 117, which applies to all upholstered furniture sold in the state. TB 117 requires all furniture to pass a test where the foam materials must withstand a flame for 12 seconds.  This standard does not require the use of chemicals to do so, but the cheapest and easiest way to pass this test has been to soak the foam in toxic fire retardants.  This test really makes no sense and does not prove safety.  A fire would most likely never get started under these circumstances.  Most house fires are caused by knocked over candles or, more commonly, cigarettes.  Usually a cigarette fire would start on the outer fabric of the couch and that fabric would fully be in flames before it even reaches the interior foam, at which point the fire retardant would have no chance.  So basically, we have a law that requires us to sit (not to mention sleep, eat and play) on couches that off-gas toxic chemicals into our air and dust particles which gets inhaled and ingested by us and our children for no good reason.  On top of it all, these cancer causing fire retardants create toxic smoke that the fire fighters are forced to inhale during rescues.  All around, it just doesn’t make sense.

So I decided to do a little digging into the history of this law that seems to have good intentions and be protecting us, but really is just poisoning us.  I came upon an eye-opening investigative series by the Chicago Tribune (that you can read here  In this series they explain how it all started with the tobacco industry.  What?!  In a nut shell, the tobacco industry was looking for a way to deal with the increasing pressure on them to create a fire-safe cigarette to prevent deaths from house fires caused by cigarettes.  The problem was that they couldn’t create a cigarette that was fire-safe that they believed their consumers would still buy.  So, what did they do instead?  They promoted flame retardant furniture — shifting the attention to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames.  Realizing that they lacked credibility, they spent millions of dollars on an aggressive campaign to “neutralize” firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco’s cause as their own.  So they basically bribed fire groups, like The National Association of State Fire Marshals, to get on board with focussing the blame on the furniture that was going up in flames, not the cigarettes that were starting the fires.  So manipulative!!  So here we are today, with a law that does not serve us, but actually harms us.

So what can you do?  A couple of things. First, you can send a pre written letter via the Sierra Club website to Governor Jerry Brown and Chief Tonya Blood telling them that you support the proposed changes to our flammability standard.   You can do that here:  Secondly, you can make sure that the products you are buying do not contain these harmful chemicals, especially items for your baby like crib mattresses, pajamas, changing table pad and carrier. To buy these items without flame retardants, see the list below.  And lastly, until the laws change, there are a few things you can do in your home to limit your family’s exposure.

  • Vacuum often (with a HEPA filter) and wet-mop to reduce build-up of dust in your home.
  • We use a HEPA air purifier as our son’s white noise in his bedroom when he sleeps. Buy one here:
  • 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, not anti-bacterial!  See why here: as hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a major pathway for exposure.
  • Don’t eat on your couch!

List of some products that do not use fire retardants:

Mattresses for adults and babies-

Children’s pajamas- You want to look for jammies that are natural fibers AND have a tag that says something like, “must be snug fitting” and/or  “not intended for sleepwear” and/or “not flame resistant”. This is how companies get around the laws that require children’s sleepwear be treated with fire retardants.  Be aware that if the item is “sleepwear” and it is made of a synthetic fiber, it has flame retardants.  All synthetic materials (ie polyester, nylon and acetate) have flame retardants added.  The ones that I buy at Old Navy are 100% cotton have the “not intended for sleepwear” tags on them.  Also, here is an adorable organic brand for older babies and kids that my friend just told me about. (Thanks Kaitlin!)  NOTE: Baby’s pajamas for under 9 months old are exempt from the flammability requirements, so are most likely not treated with fire retardant chemicals if they are natural fibers, but you should always ask.


Changing table pad-

Baby carrier-

2 thoughts on “Hot topic: Toxic flame retardants in your home and how to avoid them

  1. If the label says organic – mattresses, changing pads, even clothes – does that automatically mean it does not contain the fire retardants?

    • Hey Molly,
      Honestly, I can’t find a straight answer on this. It looks like all organic companies advertise that they don’t use flame retardants, but I don’t know if they are exempt from the law or if they are bypassing it by making them “not intended for sleep” or “must fit snug”. Either way, I think it’s safe to assume that they don’t contain chemicals. Btw, buying organic also means you are avoiding pesticides and other chemicals that conventional cotton is treated with.


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