Health risks due to fire retardants

The use of fire retardants in the American furniture industry is similar to a double-edged sword: they probably do prevent a certain degree of fires but they do so with environmental toxins that create their own set of ills. It’s not just the furniture itself that’s a source of contamination - the dust these furnishings emit into the atmosphere are just as toxic as the furniture itself.

In the 1970s, California adopted a standard for furniture manufacture that required the use of flame retardants in all furniture that contained foam cushions, padding, or pillows. Furniture manufacturers across the nation adopted this standard because California represents a significant segment of the market.

Over time, some of the chemicals once used as fire retardants have been banned and replaced by newer chemicals. Some chemicals used today aren’t even approved for use as furniture fire retardants so their safety is unknown. According to the American Chemistry Council, there is no data that identifies a threshold of safe use for all the chemicals used as fire retardants for furniture. Even so, almost every couch in the US is treated with these chemicals.

Health risks associated with the chemicals used as fire retardants include:


  • Impaired neurological development
  • Reduced fertility
  • Early onset of puberty
  • Alterations to thyroid hormones

Linda Birnbaum describes household dust as “a major route of exposure to people.” Birnbaum is director for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program. She says dust gets tainted by flame retardants in furniture and poses a particular risk to toddlers and young children who spend a considerable amount of time on the floor.

To Minimize Exposure

  • Replace old or deteriorated furniture with newer items less likely to contain banned fire retardants.
  • Keep the floors and entire house as dust-free as possible, especially if toddlers and small children are part of the household.


< Common Household Chemicals

Source: Israel, Brett. “Toxic couches? Flame retardants on the rise in furniture, study finds.” Environmental Health News. Environmental Health Sciences. Nov 28, 2012. Web. Dec 4, 2013.