Toxic Flame Retardants in our Homes: Solutions for a Critical Issue

Toxic flame retardant chemicals are not just in our mattresses but everywhere in our homes. Our furniture, mattresses, and electronics are loaded with pounds of chemicals. These flame retardants are getting into our household dust and into our bodies as well as our children’s.

A new study has found toxic flame retardants in 85% of couches tested. (1) These couches were bought between 1985 and 2010 from all over the U.S. The researchers found that a 2005 ban of a main PBDE chemical did nothing to change health risks since it was replaced by other toxic chemicals. They also found toxic flame retardants in 100% of the couches bought in California since 2005. Another new study found that toxic flame retardant chemicals are in the household dust in 13 of 16 homes tested in Northern California. (2)

An essential solution to this issue is a good HEPA home air purifier that will trap and remove the dust particles. See below for more info about solutions to this issue.

To find alternative solutions to toxins in your home, visit the Healthy Child Online Shopping Guide.

This is not the first time we were warned about fire retardants. Back in 2004 the environmental Working Group (EWG) found unexpectedly high levels of neurotoxic flame retardant chemicals in the household dust of every home sampled. (3) And back in 2008 the EWG found that toddlers and preschoolers typically had 3 times as much hormone-disrupting fire retardant chemicals in their blood as their mothers. (4)

Some chemicals were banned several years ago, but children are still being exposed to PBDEs since they are leaching out of older household products. These chemicals are associated with learning and attention problems (ADHD), fine motor coordination, and IQ. (7)

Unfortunately, the banned chemicals were replaced with ones just as toxic or even more toxic. The study found that the most common flame retardant used now is chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), which has been found to change the DNA of people exposed and is listed as a carcinogen. This is the same fire retardant chemical that was removed from children’s flame retardant pajamas back in the late 70s because it was suspected of causing cancer. But it wasn’t formally banned, just voluntarily removed so now it’s in all our couches and mattresses! Tris is now officially listed as a carcinogen in California, and the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute and the National Research Council have concluded that it’s a cancer risk. It is absorbed through the skin – that’s why it was removed from children’s sleepwear. It’s also now in the household dust of most homes.

Another chemical mixture found in the recent study is Firemaster 550. Not enough health studies have been done on this, but it’s linked to rapid weight gain and early onset of puberty in young rats. Firemaster 550 contains two brominated compounds, known as TBB and TBPH, and these are similar to a plastic-softening phthalate that was recently banned in children’s products because the phthalate is listed as a known carcinogen and developmental toxin.

Your couch and chair cushions and your mattresses and pillows are likely made of polyurethane foam saturated with these flame retardants. These chemicals are also in your television, computers and other electronics in your home. Flame retardants are even in the insulation of many  homes. Particularly disturbing is that flame retardants are found in a lot of baby products – they’re in most baby mattresses, including crib mattresses, porta-crib, bassinet, and cradle mattresses, car seats, changing table pads, toys, infant sleep positioners, and nursing pillows. (5 & 6)

It’s a sad fact that American babies are born with the highest concentrations of flame retardants of babies anywhere in the world. Elevated concentrations of these chemicals are found in breastmilk and in babies’ blood.

Fire retardants leach out of household products into the surrounding environment and accumulate in dust. In addition to spending a lot of time lying on and playing on couches and mattresses, babies and young children crawl and play on the floor and then put their hands in their mouths. Our babies are more vulnerable to these toxins than adults since they are in their most critical time of brain development and their elimination systems are immature. Many of these chemicals are linked to hormone disruption, lowered IQ, attention deficit, learning problems, cancer, changes in DNA, and decreased fertility.

A couch may contain up to two pounds of flame retardants, and it’s very hard to find one without these chemicals. There’s no way of knowing what specific chemicals are in your furniture and mattresses because they are considered trade secrets. Even the manufacturers may  not know the specific chemical make-up because the chemical companies make their flame retardant mixtures proprietary and do not disclose the ingredients. If you call a retailer or manufacturer and ask about fire retardants in their products, they may say they don’t use them, but most of the people you’re talking to don’t even know. If it’s made with polyurethane foam, you can bet it’s got flame retardants since this foam is highly flammable. Unless a company is specifically making non-toxic, chemical flame retardant-free mattresses or furniture, you can be pretty sure the foam products you are buying do contain chemical flame retardants and there’s no way of knowing exactly what these chemicals are.

The same fire retardant foam that is used in couches is also used in most mattresses. Manufacturers and retailers are not allowed to sell mattresses (baby, child or adult) unless they pass strict fire laws. The only way you can buy a mattress in the U.S. that has not passed flame testing is if you provide a doctor’s prescription saying you need a chemical-free mattress. The cheapest way to pass the fire laws is to use chemicals so that’s the way most are sold. There are alternatives, though. All the mattresses that Healthy Child sells have natural, safe alternatives of either wool or a non-toxic baking soda mixture. Even organic mattresses have to be fire retardant, so the ones that do not have a wool or baking soda flame barrier need a doctor’s prescription. Crazy, right? We need a doctor’s prescription to protect ourselves from chemical exposure. How did it get to this?

You may be thinking that at least these chemicals are protecting your kids from fires. This may come as a shock, but studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories found that flame retardants in household furniture provide no meaningful protection from fires. And the flame retardants make the fire more toxic! Without the flame retardants, a fire releases carbon dioxide. But when flame retardants are present, fires release far more soot, smoke and carbon monoxide—which is what kills you in a fire. Some chemicals release highly toxic dioxins when burned. Flame retardants are even in the insulation of many homes, which also makes the fire more toxic.

There’s been a long campaign of deception by the tobacco and chemical industries to get us to believe that flame retardants reduce fires and save lives. Sadly, it’s all a bunch of lies. These lies and all the money behind them are what has created this mass toxic exposure in our homes and our planet, and it’s what’s keeping new laws from being passed to ban these chemicals.

Read more about the deception:


So what do we do? Are there good solutions?

The long-term solution is to get these chemicals out of our homes and environment, and unfortunately that’s going to take some time and effort and a major public outcry to override the money and power of an industry to get our government to take action. I’ll be posting links to take action to help pass meaningful legislation to protect our families.

But it’s critical now to do what you can to reduce exposures in your home as much as possible. To limit the toxic dust in your home you need to regularly vacuum and dust with a damp rag or mop. Washing hands also helps a little to reduce exposure.

A good HEPA air purifier is also essential. It will trap the dust particles and remove them from your environment. We recommend Austin Air purifiers since they use a 4-stage filter containing proven filter mediums for cleaning the air.  All the Austin Air purifiers have medical grade HEPA and activated carbon that address the worst household air contaminants.  These purifiers do not emit any toxic by-products such as ozone. Austin Air purifiers have been tested by respected labs, including Battelle Laboratories and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  Extensive tests on flow rate, flow design, removal of vapors, gases and sub-micron particles have been performed on the Austin Air cleaners.

If you have a baby, you need a high quality Austin Air purifier. We recommend the Austin Air Baby’s Breath Air Purifier. It has the best protection to help your baby sleep with clean air. Austin Air Baby’s Breath traps dust particles with a HEPA filter combined with a gas trapping military carbon cloth, trapping up to 99.97% of all particles down to 0.3 microns. This system is known as High Efficiency Gas Absorption (HEGA) filtration. In addition to dust, the Baby’s Breath Air Purifier also removes allergens, pollen, tobacco smoke, dander, chemical off-gassing (VOCs), environmental smoke, viruses, bacteria, and odors from  your baby’s room. Austin Air has a variety of air purifiers for your entire home to reduce or eliminate chemical off-gassing, toxic dust, allergens, viruses, and bacteria and keep your family breathing healthy air.  See recommended air purifiers

Replacing a toxic mattress is essential because this exposure is up-close and ongoing. We sleep on our mattresses for 6-8 hours every night while absorbing and breathing chemical off-gassing. And our babies and children sleep or play on their mattresses for 10-12 hours or more every day. We’ve been researching alternatives to toxic mattresses for over 12 years and have found the highest quality, healthiest, non-toxic solutions from honest companies we have thoroughly checked out. See our organic mattress recommendations.

Here is a list of companies who state that their furniture does not contain added flame retardants, or that it can be ordered specifically without them. Please note that we have not yet confirmed or verified these companies. Just because they don’t add flame retardants does not mean that these chemicals are not already in the foam they purchased for manufacturing their furniture. And they could be using other types of chemicals in their products. We will update the list as we investigate further.

I’m also checking into how to detox these chemicals from our bodies and will be reporting on this later. Sign up for the Healthy Child newsletter to get further information.

To find alternative solutions to toxins in your home, visit the Healthy Child Online Shopping Guide.

(1) Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es303471d

(2) After the PBDE Phase-Out: A Broad Suite of Flame Retardants in Repeat House Dust Samples from California  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es303879n

(3) PBDEs – Fire Retardants in Dust  http://www.ewg.org/reports/inthedust

(4) Fire Retardants in Toddlers and Their Mothers  http://www.ewg.org/reports/pbdesintoddlers

(5) Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2007462

(6) Fire Retardants Abound in Baby Products: ES&T’s Top Science Paper 2011  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es300730d

(7) In Utero and Childhood Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Exposures and Neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS Study  http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/2012/11/1205597/


  1. Pingback: Flame Retardant Industry Campaign of Deception | Healthy Kids Blog
  2. These fire retardant chemicals are among those responsible for SIDS, as the evidence of proper mattress wrapping suggests, with 100% successful protection from SIDS when Dr Sprotts guidelines have been followed. Over 226,000 babies have slept according to these guidelines and not 1 SIDS death. getridofsids.com for details and to get hold of the correct plastic. This is so important, every parent deserves to know, pls pass this on!?

  3. Tips on air purifiers and non-toxic mattresses are helpful. But where do you get good furniture like couches?

    1. Here is a list of companies who state that their furniture does not contain added flame retardants, or that it can be ordered specifically without them:

      Please note that we have not yet confirmed or verified these companies. Just because they don’t add flame retardants does not mean that these chemicals are not already in the foam they purchased for manufacturing their furniture. And they could be using other types of chemicals in their products. We will update the list as we investigate further.

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  5. Pingback: Flame Retardant Freak Out (Avoiding Flame Retardants in Baby Gear) | Whistle Pig Hollow
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