Flame Retardants: What’s In Your Mattress?

Julia Vanella is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.

History of Chemical Flame Retardants in the United States

As part of the post-World War II development of the chemical industry, the production of flame retardants began in the 1960s. From 1969 through 1973, children’s sleepwear accounted for 32% of single-source flame injuries. Due to the number of reported accidents of children’s clothes catching fire, leading children to suffer and sometimes perish from burns, the US government began requiring children’s fire resistant pajamas with the fire retardant, brominated tris. Producers of children’s garments used this chemical to slow the burn of polyester clothing and protect the children wearing it.

From 1982 to 1986, house fires roughly accounted for 11% of adult casualties and 32% of child fatalities. In 1993, about 14,700 match and 5,600 lighter fires accounted for 29% and 49% of child injuries from children playing with fire. Concerned that government regulators would issue further restrictions for cigarettes, the tobacco industry deviated the blame from smoking onto furniture – the objects that caught fire. The tobacco industry lobbied and pushed for increased flammability measures and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire departments throughout the US. 

What’s So Bad About Flame Retardants?

Chemical flame retardants have been found to cause cancer and other adverse health effects. Scientists Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames discovered brominated tris as a likely carcinogen, which humans can absorb through their skin. The chemical was also suggested to cause reproductive issues, affect IQ levels in children, and impact thyroid hormones in adults. The chemical flame retardant was also detected in breast milk, leading researchers to question the potential toxicity to nursing infants. 

Due to the results found by Blum and Ames, a new agency created in the 1970s, the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, quickly banned the use of the chemical in children’s sleepwear. In 1977, brominated tris was outlawed from manufacturing children’s pajamas. The courts, however, overturned the ban, but clothing companies still complied by no longer producing children’s clothes with the chemical. Another chemical flame-retardant, chlorinated tris, was then produced and manufactured, which the government has never banned. Due to this shift in production, chlorinated tris entered the homes of many Americans for generations through the upholstery of furniture.

Since the 1970s, flame retardants have been used in textiles, foam in furniture, baby products, building insulation, carpets, drapes, TV sets, and a plethora of other items. Chemical flame retardants, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), do not chemically bond to the items to which they were added, like furniture and electronics, so the particles easily release into the air as dust. This includes the adult and crib mattresses on which we sleep. While the poisonous particles are not visible to us, they can be released in the air, water, and soil during production. They can also escape from products and land in the food we consume. A report from 2006 from the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggests that children’s exposure to the chemical compound, tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate) (TDCIPP), was five times the level regarded as safe and that children’s levels surpassed the “acceptable cancer risk.” This amount is known as the acceptable daily intake (ADI) which measures the quantity of a certain element that people can ingest or absorb daily throughout their lifetime without “appreciable health risks.” If one’s ingestion or exposure exceeds the acceptable amount, it could lead to severe adverse health effects. Chlorinated flame retardants are especially harmful when they are released from mattresses since people spend many hours sleeping on these surfaces, particularly babies and young children.

Natural Flame Retardants

Safe alternatives to mattresses without chemical flame retardants exist. These materials include organic wool and cotton, plant-based memory foam, and natural latex. Unfortunately, it may be difficult and frustrating to detect and discover what materials are used in the production of mattresses and what kind of toxic gasses and chemicals are released in response. In an effort to address this issue, some websites and resources promote the use and purchase of mattresses made of organic and natural materials, such as “The Good Trade.” 

Recent Legislative Reform and the Future

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented the polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) Significant New Use Rules (SNUR). This regulation created the termination of two PBDE flame-retardant chemicals, PentaBDE and OctaBDE, and guaranteed that no new production or importation of these chemicals could take place after January 1, 2005, without an evaluation from the EPA. SNUR allows for the EPA to assess any concerns and regulate future production, importation, and uses related to these chemicals. Although the production of PentaBDE was discontinued in 2004, products that contain the flame retardant may still be imported to the United States.

As of January 2020, California’s Proposition 65 banned the sale and production of new furniture, foam in mattresses, and specific products for children that consist of more than 0.1% of certain chemicals used in flame retardants, including chlorinated tris. Proposition 65 requires producers to provide warnings to Californians regarding significant exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer, congenital disabilities, and reproductive issues.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSD) has not yet banned these chemicals. The Commission voted to authorize the influence of rulemaking to ban the use of organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), including chlorinated and brominated chemicals in children’s products, upholstered furniture in homes, mattresses and mattress pads, and plastic casings around electronics. The Commission’s vote could result in outlawing certain products that contain chlorinated flame retardants.

Even state-level regulations do not guarantee a reduction of the public’s exposure to fire retardant chemicals. Prohibiting certain fire retardants will likely lead chemical companies to produce and market replacement chemicals that might be just as harmful or worse than those they aim to replace. Massachusetts recently declared the ban of more than ten brominated, chlorinated, or organophosphate-based mixtures used in flame retardants present in children’s products, bedding, carpeting, residential upholstered furniture, and windows. The ban even includes fire retardants developed as substitutes for PentaBDE and OctaBDE. While this new state regulation will protect those living in Massachusetts, many other states continue to allow flame retardants to enter the home of their residents.

While many states have regulated the use of flame retardants in products like furniture, carpeting, children’s toys, and mattresses, no chemicals have been federally prohibited. Since no current federal bills, regulations, or laws are being considered that will ban flame retardants, there is still much work to be done to combat these harmful chemicals. Hopefully, by raising awareness and bringing forth the dangers of flame retardants to the public, states and the federal government will take more action to protect the public’s health.

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