Think about this the next time you snuggle up on the couch for a good ol’ Netflix binge-watch. (Bear with me on this one.)
My grandmother liked to tell a story about how during one memorable family vacation, she was nursing my dad in the front seat of the car while my grandfather drove and her other six kids played in the back. All was peachy until the car hit a bump and the back door flew open, ejecting my 8-year-old aunt onto the highway going 50 miles an hour.
Apparently she bumped and rolled until she landed on the median where she stayed until my grandparents could pull over and come back for her. When they found her she was shaken up but basically unharmed. “It was a real live miracle,” Grammy used to exclaim.
I’ll say it was a miracle. Let’s count the safety violations: Seat belts were for wusses, car doors opened randomly, an infant was in the front seat and there were no airbags.
Back then it wasn’t just cars that had safety issues. Appliances exploded, cartoon characters gave demos on how to bludgeon people with anvils and coffee came without the “contents hot” warning. Ah, the good ol’ days, when people were free to endanger their own lives with ordinary household objects.
But there was one safety problem that people really wanted to fix: In the ’70s approximately 12,000 Americans a year were dying from fires set by dropped cigarettes. To remedy this the state of California enacted a law that all furniture had to be able to withstand several seconds of heat from a small flame without bursting into a ball of fire. (As a point of reference, it would be decades before anti-smoking bans became popular which gives new meaning to the phrase “putting out the wrong fire”.) To do this, furniture companies coated their products in flame-retardant chemicals. And ever since, people have been free to fall asleep while smoking without fear of immolation! (Maybe. Don’t try that at home.)
It was a well-intentioned gesture but it had an unintended consequence. Now all our furniture — the stuff we lay on, sleep in, have sex on and otherwise be human around — is covered in toxic chemicals. One of the most popular flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), has been found to lower IQ scores and cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and thyroid disorders. So maybe it’s not your reality TV habit that’s making you stupid but rather your couch.
Even worse was that the idea spread beyond furniture to anything we didn’t want to burst into flame like sleeping bags, carpets and everything ever created for children. The most common chemical, tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl)phosphate (TDCPP), which scientists say can cause neurological problems in babies and children, was used to coat children’s jammies. Even after that practice was stopped, companies are still putting it on infant mattresses, car seats and strollers. (I’m not sure which is more frightening: that someone put a toxic flame retardant on my kid’s carseat or that someone thought there was a good chance my kid’s carseat would be around an open flame.)
Yet even though all of our stuff is coated in chemicals, it’s shockingly difficult to find out what exactly is on which thing. As consumer awareness has grown, more and more people are demanding to know why their couches smell funny but companies aren’t required to give answers. And since government oversight is little, they can’t tell you either.
So Duke University has stepped in with a free program to help you figure out if your furniture is harming your health. Simply clip a sample of the foam of your couch (or whatever), wrap it in foil, seal it in a ziploc and mail it to the Duke Superfund Analytical Chemistry Core. Several weeks later you’ll get a list of what chemicals are on your stuff and what you can do about it.
In the meantime, you can always cover your couches with those plastic slipcovers, like my grandma did.