UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, January 2015

2015 Green Resolution:  Minimize your Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants

2015With the new year, comes new opportunities to make a green new year’s resolution.  For 2015, consider making a commitment to reducing your exposure to flame retardants. Due to the negative health impacts from exposure to flame retardants, UCSF is currently exploring the development of a new standard to avoid flame retardants in future institutional furniture purchases in fully sprinklered buildings.  Not only will this create a healthier environment for employees and patients, according to the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), furniture free of toxic flame retardants can save hospitals $30-$100 per desk chair and $100-$300 for larger pieces of furniture.

The regulatory framework for flame retardants has evolved over the past year.  Below is a brief summary of the two key developments:

  • TB 117-2013:  In January, 2014 a new California furniture-flammability standard came into effect (TB-117-2013), allowing companies to meet the state standard without the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals. If you have a fully sprinklered building, you can opt to meet the TB-117-2013 standard, and this new standard can be met without the use of flame retardant chemicals.

  • Senate Bill 1019:  To date, it has not been easy to determine which products are actually flame retardant free.  The new flame retardant labeling bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1019, will make things easier. SB 1019 requires manufacturers to label any furniture made after January 1, 2015, stating if the product “contains or does not contain” added flame-retardant chemicals.

Reason’s to Avoid Flame Retardants

Flame retardant chemicals can be found in many products:  upholstered sofas and chairs (in both the foam and fabric), beds, electronics, and children’s clothing. The problem is that they can leach out of products, contaminating workplaces and homes and making their way into our bodies.  According to the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), studies have found toxic flame retardants in the bodies of virtually all Americans tested and in nearly all workplace environments tested.  “Some people still think that flame retardants in furniture are a good thing, that they actually help prevent fires. This is simply not true,” stressed Judy Levin, Pollution Prevention Director at CEH. 

FlameThe Green Policy Science Institute summarizes, “Flame retardant chemicals are added to many different consumer products and are associated with a variety of serious health concerns, including disruption of hormones, developmental, and reproductive problems. Flame retardants do not stay in products- they are found in the blood, fat, and breast milk of nearly all people tested, as well being ubiquitous in wildlife and the environment worldwide.”

Pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable. “American women’s breast milk is about ten to a hundred times higher levels than European breast milk,” explained Levin, because Europe phased out the most toxic flame retardants (PBDEs) much earlier than we did in the US.  She continued, “Flame retardants pass through the placenta and can reach the fetus.  Because infants brains, organs, and bodies are development rapidly, early chemical exposure can cause permanent health effects, like reduced IQs, reduced learning ability, poor fine motor coordination, and attention deficit disorder.”  Young children are at a higher risk to exposure because they frequently put their hands, toys, and other objects in their mouths and because they tend to play on the floor, where contaminated house dust can accumulate.

Tips for Reducing Your Exposure

Beyond what UCSF is doing at the institutional level, below are three tips for how your individual choices can minimize your exposure.

  • Look for Furniture Labeled Flame-Retardant Free:  SB 1019 will require labeling on upholstered furniture to tell shoppers whether it contains toxic flame retardant chemicals, making it easier for you to know for sure whether a piece of furniture depends on toxic chemicals to meet flammability standards. When you order furniture, specify that you want a product labeled free of all flame retardant chemicals.  Consider buying from the CEH’s list of companies that produce flame retardant free furniture.  Other resources include CEH’s Guide to Flame Retardant-Free Office Furniture and the Green Science Policy Institute’s consumer resources, which includes a list of suppliers.  According to Levin, until companies catch-up, your best bet is to custom order all new furniture and to make a specific request that it be labeled as flame retardant-free.

  • Remember to Wash Your Hands:  Beyond the obvious benefits of protecting yourself from germs, washing your hands is also an effective way to reduce your exposure to flame retardants.  Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and always before eating.

  • Use a Vacuum Cleaner Fitted with a HEPA Filter:  Vacuums with a HEPA filter are more efficient at trapping small particles and will more likely remove contaminated dust from your home.

Learn More

The following organizations offer more tips and resources:

Center for Environmental Health
Green Science Policy Institute
Environmental Working Group

Diagram from the Green Policy Science Institute.
Written by Green Impact, a sustainability consultant helping organizations make a greener impact.