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Flame retardants could be hazardous to your health

Putting flame retardants on products — from furniture to electronics — sounds like a no-brainer. In fact, there have been laws requiring the use of flame retardants on furniture.

Increasingly, however, scientists and consumer advocates have been saying that these chemicals are more dangerous than helpful — causing diseases and neurological problems, particularly in children. Some types of retardants already have been banned, but others are still in widespread use.

Last month, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission took a step to further reduce consumers’ exposure to retardant chemicals when it agreed to begin the process of banning any that contain organohalogens, a class of chemicals associated with health issues — including cancer, learning deficits, hormone disruptions, and lowered immunity. Flame retardants made with organohalogens have traditionally been used in a range of products, including mattresses, furniture, and electronics.


But what can consumers do to protect themselves from the potential dangers of organohalogens, while the planned restrictions go through the federal rule-making process?

First, ask questions of retailers and manufacturers, advises Maureen Swanson, director of the Healthy Children Project at the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Manufacturers are often responsive to customer inquiries, she says.

Retailers also can be, but consumers might need to push a bit, Swanson says — make it clear that your decision whether to make a purchase is at stake.

Next, shop smart. Several furniture sellers — including Ikea, Macy’s, and Ashley Furniture — have already have said they no longer use toxic flame retardants. But the ban only applies to items manufactured in the past few years, so bargain-hunters should still be wary of used furniture.

Also, read product labels. If a furniture label says the items meets “TB 117 Standards” — a reference to an old California law requiring the use of flame retardants — it almost certainly contains unwanted chemicals, says Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store program for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. Look for labels that indicate furniture “contains no added flame retardants,” he says.


For more in-depth information about retailers’ policies regarding toxic chemicals in the products they sell, visit RetailerReportCard.org. The site will be updated in November for the holiday shopping season.

“Unfortunately, though, we can’t shop our way out of the problem,” Schade says. “We need policymakers and businesses to safeguard our health.”

Have a consumer question or complaint? Reach Sarah Shemkus at seshemkus@gmail.com.