Are There Endocrine Disruptors in Your Sofa?
I spend a lot of time on my couch. I’m not above a 5-hour television marathon, or sitting on it all Sunday as I poke around on my computer and my husband watches golf. I’m on it right now.
The couch in question is from Ikea, it traveled from my husband’s previous apartment, and it’s made of plastic—well, faux leather. The model has since been cancelled because people’s couches, ours included, starting looking like they were melting in spots, which is some kind of defect of this mysterious material.
It’s a surprisingly attractive looking couch, not one that makes you think “wow, those people have a plastic couch.” But I think about that often enough, and it bugs be not because I care that it’s cheap (or cheap-looking) but that I suspect the thing carries with it more chemicals than I can count, and probably more than one endocrine disruptor (and bendy plastics tend to).
But apparently everyone’s couch is filled with potentially harmful chemicals, not just my plastic beauty. In a recent New York Times article Nick Kristof (a bigger hero to us by the day) he talks about the flame retardents in sofas, and a new investigative series called “Playing With Fire” in the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune series is exhaustive, and maybe on Sunday I’ll plop onto my couch and read it through. In the meantime, Kristof highlights some of the infuriating facts about how flame retardants got into our sofas. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ve exerted sections of his article below.
Chances are that if you’re sitting on a couch right now, it contains flame retardants. This will probably do no good if your house catches fire — although it may release toxic smoke.
There is growing concern that the chemicals are hazardous, with evidence mounting of links to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive problems.
It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry… tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.
An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture…But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants.
The problem with flame retardants is that they migrate into dust that is ingested, particularly by children playing on the floor… some retardants were very similar to banned PCBs, which have been linked to everything from lower I.Q. to diabetes, and that it was reasonable to expect certain flame retardants to have similar consequences.
Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told me, “For pregnant women, they can alter brain development in the fetus.” Her research decades ago led to the removal of a flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children’s pajamas. But chlorinated Tris is still used in couches and nursing pillows (without any warning labels).
So there it is, we can thank the cigarette industry, and the three companies that stood to make billions, for the presence of flame retardants in our couches. It’s pretty disheartening stuff.
This may feel like a leap from the beauty business, but it’s actually not. It’s exactly the same kind of unregulated and unlabeled presence of chemicals in consumer products—chemicals that may be doing harm to our bodies, our kids, and our unborn babies. Do you think about the stuff in your couch, your clothing, your home? [Insert exhausted groan here.]