Chemical flame retardants are used to limit fires, but they've been linked with several health problems. Photo courtesy macwagen, Flickr Creative Commons
Chemical flame retardants are used to limit fires, but they've been linked with several health problems. Photo courtesy macwagen, Flickr Creative Commons


A Duke lab uses samples sent in by members of the public to gauge the extent of chemicals in household products.

By Gabe Rivin

For Kerri Duntley, the saga began with a smell.

Duntley, who was pregnant with her third child, was excited to furnish her new house near Charlotte, and had just picked out a new pair of couches. Yet when the couches arrived, a smell began to fill her living room. Duntley grew concerned.

Chemical flame retardants are used to limit fires, but they've been linked with several health problems. Photo courtesy macwagen, Flickr Creative Commons
Chemical flame retardants are used to limit fires, but they’ve been linked with several health problems. Photo courtesy macwagen, Flickr Creative Commons

“I’d call it a strong chemical smell,” she said. “It was a strong, strong odor.”

In recent years, Duntley had spent countless hours reading about environmental pollutants – those in air, water and consumer products. She had pored over health research that worried her and pondered associations between these pollutants and health problems among humans.

But her concerns about toxic chemicals weren’t just academic. For years, Duntley’s family members struggled with a variety of autoimmune disorders. Duntley herself survived a fight with thyroid cancer in 2010.

“Being a young family, I don’t feel like that’s normal,” she said.

When the couches’ reek filled her living room, she wondered: Were the couches exposing her family to harmful chemicals?

Duntley searched for answers in web forums and even tried contacting the couches’ manufacturer, all to no avail. Frustrated and on the search for new couches, Duntley stumbled upon an unusual website.

A Duke University lab was offering to sample residential polyurethane foam, the kind found in couches, beds and upholstered chairs. The lab would test the foam for a suite of seven common flame retardants, chemicals that limit fires in consumer products and that have been associated with cancer and neurological disorders.

The lab would even report back with its findings to people who submitted their samples.

The lab’s instructions were simple: Snip a piece of foam from a couch. Wrap it up in tinfoil and a plastic bag. Mail it to Duke, and wait for the results to come back.

So Duntley sent in her sample. The results soon returned and she learned that two flame retardants tested positive in her couch, one of which has proven harmful in animal studies.

She said she found the result heartbreaking.

Duntley’s experience points to a vast gap in North Carolinians’ information about their consumer goods. The state and federal governments have limited power to regulate chemicals in consumer products, leaving consumers and scientists with a paucity of information about chemicals entering their homes.

And this means many consumers are left, like Duntley, to weave together a crude health-risk assessment, based on incomplete information, when they go shopping.

Duke’s lab is looking to change this, at least in its small way. By offering to analyze anyone’s polyurethane foam for flame retardants, the lab has informed dozens of North Carolinians about their furniture’s toxicity.

The foam samples have also given Duke’s team a large pool of crowdsourced data. With its free service, Duke’s scientists are improving their understanding of chemical manufacturing. And they’re learning more about the toxic ecosystems that might inhabit our homes.

Putting the heat on flame retardants

Heather Stapleton, the environmental chemist who supervises Duke’s lab, is no stranger to flame retardants. She’s studied the chemicals since the days of her Ph.D. dissertation in the early 2000s. But while that work looked at flame retardants in Lake Michigan, Stapleton began on a path of more terrestrial pursuits.

Heather Stapleton supervises a lab that offers free chemical tests of residential foam. Photo courtesy National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Heather Stapleton supervises a lab that offers free chemical tests of residential foam. Photo courtesy National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

As a postdoctoral researcher, Stapleton contributed to a finding that ingesting dust is by far human’s largest source of exposure to flame retardants. Because they’re not chemically bound to their products, flame retardants float through the air while attached to dust, according to Stapleton and a cohort of academic researchers.

Though her research had entered a more domestic domain, Stapleton hadn’t yet focused explicitly on consumer products. But that changed in 2008.

“When I was pregnant with my first child, I started realizing that a lot of baby products in particular had a label on them indicating that they met a flammability standard for residential furniture, through the state of California,” she said.

The 1975 California rule, Technical Bulletin 117, was intended to prevent fires in homes, which at the time killed roughly 12,000 Americans annually. Under the rule, upholstered furniture had to withstand a small flame for 12 seconds. To comply with the rule, furniture manufacturers began adding chemical flame retardants to their products.

But what starts in California’s large economy often becomes a de facto national standard, and this was no different. California’s flame retardant standard now affects products in every state, including North Carolina.

Stapleton sought to measure just how pervasive these chemicals were. In one study, in 2011, she and her colleagues sampled foam from baby products across the country. The findings were startling.

Chemical flame retardants made up about 5 percent of products’ weight and were present in about 80 percent of the samples. Some chemicals were known to cause cancer. Others, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have been associated with lower IQ scores, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and thyroid disorders.

Stapleton’s findings gained the media’s attention, and soon her inbox began to grow cluttered.

“We were receiving lots of requests from the general public about, ‘What should I buy? I’m pregnant, I have this baby, I don’t want to have these chemicals in my products,’” she said.

Soon Stapleton and her colleagues developed the idea of a free testing service for the public. It would be funded by a federal grant and would test residential foam for seven common flame retardants, including tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, or TDCPP, which researchers say is likely harmful to infants’ neurological development.

By soliciting samples from the public, the service would also aid Stapleton’s research by helping her track developments in manufacturing.

[box style=”2″]

Chemicals tested in Stapleton’s Lab:

Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate
Firemaster 550
Tris-isobutylated triphenyl phosphate,
Methyl phenyl phosphate
Tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate[/box]

This February, the testing service went live with the ability to sample 50 pieces of foam a month. At times, Stapleton said, the public’s demand has exceeded her lab’s capacity. The lab has served hundreds of people from across the country, including 42 homes in North Carolina.

A gap in information

The service is distinctive among academic research, according to Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funds Duke’s testing service.

NIEHS head Linda Birnbaum, PhD
NIEHS head Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. Photo courtesy NIEHS

“Saying to anyone, ‘Send me your sample and I’ll tell you what it is,’ I don’t know of anyone else who does it,” she said.

Birnbaum said that the public and academic researchers alike face a large informational gap about the chemicals in consumer products.

“One of the problems that we have with consumer products is, we have no idea what’s in them,” she said.

The problem, according to critics in both government and advocacy organizations, lies in a 1976 federal law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which governs commercial chemicals. Critics say the law cripples the government’s power to collect safety information about chemicals.

Jim Jones, who runs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s chemicals office, added that the federal government bears the burden to prove a chemical’s safety.

“The burden is pretty much on us to figure out if there’s an issue, which is not true for drugs in the United States, it’s not true for pesticides in the United States,” he said.

How to think about toxic chemicals

While consumers struggle to gather information about a vast array of store-bought products, Stapleton’s lab is helping to fill one informational gap – relatively small though it may be.

Yet, according to some health researchers, consumers may need to temper their worries about toxic chemicals.

“Since we can’t avoid living in a world that has lots of risk, part of the important question about how to survive is, ‘Am I worrying about the stuff that’s most useful for me to worry about?’” said Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the way consumers make decisions about their health.

Still, consumers need help when they’re deciding between, say, one couch and another, he said.

“Trying to ask a consumer to be the judge of which one is better is well beyond the level of what anyone can do,” he said. Instead, Zikmund-Fisher said, consumers need government agencies or other testing agencies to weigh these chemical risks and to help consumers make balanced and informed decisions.

With that sort of system, people like Kerri Duntley could save themselves from having to carve into their couch cushions. Maybe they could even recline with their newborns, unafraid of the chemicals in the cushions under them.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Atlantic.

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Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...