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Protecting kids at home

Assessing the risks of furniture flame retardants

By Kay Torrance

Story Photo

Crawl around on the floor and you can easily see how many innocuous household items could harm a curious young child. An open stairway, the sharp corner of a coffee table, an electrical outlet. That soft, cushy sofa is also a trouble spot, points out Rollins environmental researcher Lyndsey Darrow (seated above).

Inside sofas and upholstered chairs is a type of furniture foam doused in flame-retardant chemicals, including a class of compounds called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. The chemicals can migrate into dust that is inhaled or ingested and, as studies have shown, can disrupt the endocrine system. Young children are especially vulnerable to exposure because they frequently put their hands and objects in their mouths.

Darrow wants to know how much of these chemicals children are ingesting. She currently is studying 80 Atlanta-area children ages 2 to 5 to measure their exposure and what changes in hormone levels, if any, result.

"These compounds are very persistent," she says. "They attach to fat cells and are stored in the body for a very long time. There is growing evidence they disturb thyroid function, which can lead to hyperactivity and sleep disturbances."

So far, most of the children have high chemical levels in their system, and two have an amount 10 times higher than the others, leading Darrow to wonder if the two children ate a piece of furniture foam to have such an elevated reading.

"Older furniture has more of the chemical compounds that we are measuring in this study," she says. "While there has been concern about these particular compounds recently, chemical companies have simply substituted them with other compounds that have similar chemical structures."

California recently passed a law making it easier to meet furniture inflammability standards without using chemical flame retardants. Darrow hopes the law will prompt large manufacturers to make flame retardant-free furniture available nationwide. Currently, only a few manufacturers offer this type of furniture.

"In time, this research may lead to safer consumer products on the market, much like the success story of when lead was removed from paint after lead exposure was found to be harmful to children," she says.

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