You know those moments in the late afternoon when the sun comes into your home at just the right angle and you can see all the dust flying around? Or worse yet, when a guest sits on the couch and in slow motion, a cloud of dust rises, and you hope you’re the only one who noticed.
I admit, dust can seem pretty innocuous. But science over the last few decades shows us that household dust is a primary route of exposure for many toxic chemicals. Toxic flame retardants are a class of chemicals that have come under recent scrutiny because they are linked to a host of adverse health effects like harm to the developing brain, testes, and liver, hormone disruption, thyroid disruption, cancer and more.
Some of you may remember when a toxic chemical called “chlorinated tris” was banned from children’s pajamas back in the 1970s. Well due to our lax federal laws, that same chemical never left the marketplace and is now found in other children’s products including some nursing pillows, changing pads and couches.
So what’s the deal with these chemicals? Where are they found and what can you do to protect you and your family?
What are flame retardants?
Toxic flame retardants are a class of chemicals used commonly in household products. And despite hundreds of scientific studies showing their harmful effects, they are perfectly legal to use in the United States. Given their name, these chemicals sound like they’re helping us out. But here’s the problem: they don’t actually slow or prevent fires. Scientific studies show that the chemicals are essentially ineffective in preventing fires.
How are we exposed to these chemicals?
Flame retardants are used in a variety of household products including many children’s products, couches and textiles. The primary way we’re exposed to flame retardants is through our household dust. The chemicals leach out of the couch, computer, tv etc and end up in the dust and therefore our bodies. Many flame retardants are known to be highly toxic and they persist in the environment. This means that we’re also exposed to the chemicals through our environment including certain types of food including meat, dairy, breast milk and even peanut butter! (Please note: we still encourage women to breast feed if possible.)
What can I do to protect myself from these chemicals?
There is good news! There are some simple steps you can take to protect your family.
- Reduce Exposure to Dust
As I mentioned earlier, dust is the primary route of exposure for these chemicals. Dusting frequently with a microfiber cloth (no need to use dusting sprays!), a wet mop and frequently vacuuming with a HEPA filter will go a long way to reduce your exposure. Studies have also shown that frequently washing your hands with soap and water will also decrease exposure.
- Follow the “One-Two” Rule
According to the Green Science Policy Institute, a good way to tell if a couch or children’s product contains these chemicals is if #1 - the product has polyurethane foam and #2 - if the tag states that the product “meets the California Flammability Standards of Technical Bulletin TB 117.” If you see that both #1 and #2 are true, avoid purchasing the product. If you’re unsure if the product has polyurethane foam, you can simply call the manufacturer to find out, which can be done easily while you’re in the store.
- Choose Safe Electronics
The electronics industry has gone a long way to remove flame retardants from their products including some models from: Canon, Dell, HP, Intel, Erickson, Apple, Acer, Nokia, Motorola, LG Electronics, and Sony. Call the manufacturer to be sure the product you’re buying is flame retardant free.
- Look for Safer Furniture
Choose furniture made with less flammable fabrics like cotton, wool and leather. Look for crib mattresses stuffed with cotton, polyester, or wool instead of foam.
- Contact the Manufacturers of Products in Question
If you have a product in question, call the manufacturer and ask if they use any flame retardant chemicals. If they are using toxic flame retardants, ask them to stop using them immediately. Also consider using social media to ask companies to stop using flame retardants, this can help shed light on both good and bad companies.
But here’s the deal: we shouldn’t need a “safe shopping guide” to avoid toxic chemicals in our homes. The burden to find safe products shouldn’t be on us as consumers.
Our federal laws should protect us from these nasty chemicals in the first place. In order to fully solve the problem we need Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill that would put common sense limits on toxic chemicals and would increase the safety of chemicals in this country.
So while it’s good news that the makers of flame retardants have recently lost credibility, there is still a lot that needs to be done to strengthen our state and federal laws. By following the simple tips I mentioned above, you can protect your family while we simultaneously urge Congress to do the right thing.
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