How Dangerous is Your Couch?

In September 1976, a mail runner from Katmandu arrived at Base Camp on Mount Everest with a package for Dr. Arlene Blum, a member of the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition. The package had nothing to do with the climb, or Blum’s status as the first American woman to attempt the world’s highest peak. It concerned pajamas. Inside were the proofs of an article she co-wrote for the journal Science about a chemical then widely used in children’s sleepwear. The subtitle was unusually blunt for a scientific paper: “The main flame retardant in children’s pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used.”

The article ran the following January. By April, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the flame retardant from children’s sleepwear. Manufacturers quickly switched to a related compound, chlorinated Tris. Blum and her co-author, a biochemist named Bruce Ames, tested it and found that it, too, was a mutagen and thus likely to be carcinogenic. Chlorinated Tris was then removed from pajamas as well.

Blum went on to a storied career as a mountaineer, leaving biochemistry behind. But while she was adventuring all over the world, Tris was staging a quiet comeback in other products.

Blum discovered this fact six years ago, when, at age 61, she decided to return to science. Looking for a way to put her academic training to use, she attended a symposium on chemical policy in California. There she struck up a conversation with Bob Luedeka, who happens to be the executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association. He was there, he said, because of worries about chemical flame retardants, which are found in almost all upholstered furniture. One of the most commonly used flame retardants is chlorinated Tris. Blum says she felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after a 30-year nap.

Since 1975, an obscure California agency called the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting. Because foam is highly flammable, the bureau’s regulation, Technical Bulletin 117, can be met only by adding large quantities of chemical flame retardants — usually about 5 to 10 percent of the weight of the foam — at the point of manufacture. The state’s size makes it impractical for furniture makers to keep separate inventories for different markets, so about 80 percent of the home furniture and most of the upholstered office furniture sold in the United States complies with California’s regulation. “We live in a foam-filled world, and a lot of the foam is filled with these chemicals,” Blum says.

The problem is that flame retardants don’t seem to stay in foam. High concentrations have been found in the bodies of creatures as geographically diverse as salmon, peregrine falcons, cats, whales, polar bears and Tasmanian devils. Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.

Blum decided she would get the Bureau of Home Furnishings to change its rules so that flame retardants would no longer be used. She had the science. She had the support of the foam industry. And she had already done this once, with children’s pajamas. How hard could it be?

“I thought we’d have one meeting,” she says. “You know, Himalayan mountain climbers are acute optimists because there’s such a high fatality rate. If you do things like that, you have to be optimistic to the point of slight insanity.”

Blum had no idea what she was taking on, but even if she had, she would not have been deterred. Her life has been filled with the doing of unlikely things. When she first tried to join high-altitude expeditions in the late 1960s, for example, she was told that women could only come as far as base camp — “to help with the cooking.” One expedition leader put it this way in a 1969 letter explaining why he was turning her down for an expedition in Afghanistan: “One woman and nine men would seem to me to be unpleasant high on the open ice, not only in excretory situations, but in the easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition.”

Blum arranged her own expeditions in response. She planned the first all-women’s ascent of Denali in 1970 when she was 25, taking over at the summit after the more experienced leader succumbed to altitude sickness and had to be carried down. A year later, she organized a 15-month mountaineering journey across Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Iran, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Nepal that she called the Endless Winter in homage to the surfer movie “Endless Summer.” And in 1978 she led the first American — and first all-female — ascent of Annapurna I, a 26,545-foot peak that is considered the world’s most dangerous. At the time, Annapurna’s summit had been reached by just 8 of the 89 people who attempted it; 9 died trying. Blum’s expedition, partially financed by sales of T-shirts that said “A woman’s place is on top,” was beset by storms, avalanches, illness and the death of two women, but two American women and two Sherpas did reach the summit.

Blum went on to lead the first ascent of Bhrigupanth in India, trek across the Himalayas on foot and carry her infant daughter, Annalise, across the Alps on her back, eventually writing two popular books about her adventures. Each of these exploits started with Blum getting an idea lodged in her head. “She’s a bulldog,” Margi Rusmore, a member of the Annapurna expedition, says. “Don’t get her on your ankle.”

Blum lives in the upper reaches of the Berkeley Hills, not far from the hiking trails that serve as her satellite office. Each morning, she walks along a fire trail, dictating e-mails into her phone. Each afternoon, she walks in Tilden Park, conducting meetings or interviews or simply talking over the latest chemical news with friends. If you spend any time with Blum, you learn one lesson pretty quickly: wear comfortable shoes.

Her house is small and cozy and crammed with Himalayan pillows, posters and fabrics. The first time we sat down to talk, last spring, she walked around her living room, giving me a short biography of the furnishings, which were all free of flame retardants. “A lot of this furniture used to have toxic cushions, so I threw away all the cushions and got other stuff,” she said. The couch had been custom-made; the chairs were filled with polyester.

The purge happened in 2007, after Blum’s 14-pound cat Midnight began losing weight. The vet diagnosed feline hyperthyroidism, a disease that was unknown until 1979 but is now considered one of the most common endocrine disorders in cats. Blum wondered if there might be a possible link between feline hyperthyroidism and penta, a flame retardant that was withdrawn from the market in 2004, so her vet suggested sending a vial of Midnight’s blood to a researcher in Illinois. Sure enough, Midnight’s blood was 28 parts per million penta. Thinking that flame retardants in her aging sofa might be migrating into her household’s dust, Blum got rid of it. Four years later, the penta levels in her dust had dropped to 3 parts per million from 95 parts per million.

Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist who conducted many of the best-known studies of flame retardants, notes that foam is full of air. “So every time somebody sits on it,” she says, “all the air that’s in the foam gets expelled into the environment.” Studies have found that young children, who often play on the floor and put toys in their mouths, can have three times the levels of flame retardants in their blood as their parents. Flame retardants can also pass from mother to child through the placenta and through breast milk.

The effects of that exposure may be hard to detect in individual children, but scientists can see them when they look across the population. Researchers from the Center for Children’s Environmental Health, at Columbia University, measured a class of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in the umbilical-cord blood of 210 New York women and then followed their children’s neurological development over time. They found that those with the highest levels of prenatal exposure to flame retardants scored an average of five points lower on I.Q. tests than the children with lower exposures, an impact similar to the effect of lead exposure in early life. “If you’re a kid who is at the low end of the I.Q. spectrum, five points can make the difference between being in a special-ed class or being able to graduate from high school,” says Julie Herbstman, the study’s author.

There are many flame retardants in use, the components of which are often closely held trade secrets. Some of the older ones, like the PBDEs, have been the subject of thousands of studies and have since been taken off the market (although many of us still have them in our furniture). Newer ones like Chemtura’s Firemaster 550 are just starting to be analyzed, even though it is now one of the most commonly used flame retardants in furniture.

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

This small study hardly constitutes definitive proof, however. In a written response to my questions, Chemtura said that the rat studies it performed and submitted to the E.P.A. “indicated no observable adverse health effects at exposure levels significantly higher than would be expected from the use of the product.” And while that product’s components have been found in household dust in Boston, treated sewage in San Francisco and in the air in Chicago, no one can say for sure that the compounds originated from Firemaster 550. “There are other sources for these substances,” Chemtura wrote.

One day last year, I unzipped the covering around one of my couch cushions, snipped off a small sample of the foam and mailed it to Stapleton’s lab to be analyzed. Several months later, the results came back. My couch, where my son does his homework, contains chlorinated Tris.

The question was what to make of this information. The Consumer Product Safety Commission considers chlorinated Tris to be a probable human carcinogen and has said that adding it to furniture exposes children to a daily dose significantly higher than what the agency considers acceptable. The two companies that sell the flame retardant, I.C.L. Industrial Products and Albemarle, say I have nothing to worry about, citing a European Union Risk Assessment from 2008 that concluded consumer exposure to the chemical is too low to cause significant health problems. Dr. David Clary, Albemarle’s chief sustainability officer, says that the kind of testing done by Bruce Ames that first flagged chlorinated Tris as a mutagen could be used to condemn peanut butter and broccoli. “According to the Ames test,” he says, “almost everything causes cancer in high doses.”

But whether or not I believe that Tris is safe, my options are limited. The choice isn’t between my Tris-treated couch and another flame-retardant-free one. It’s between this couch and no couch. Even couches that aren’t labeled TB 117 compliant have been found, when tested, to have flame retardants in their foam. Blum lived without a sofa for years after discarding her penta-treated one, but not many are willing to do the same.

“When it was baby pajamas, you could toss them out and get cotton pajamas,” Blum says. “But what can you do about your couch? How do you replace it?”

Once Blum decided that she was going to take on flame retardants, she began introducing herself to the major players — scientists, furniture manufacturers, policy makers. The fact that she had no financing and that her credentials were 30 years old didn’t seem to bother her, and didn’t seem to matter. She founded a nonprofit group, the Green Science Policy Institute, with a board of directors that includes a former president of Stanford University and a former chairman of the American Chemical Society. In short order, she seemed to know everyone who had an interest in flame retardants.

“She may say she has a small staff or a small budget,” Andrew McGuire, who is the policy director of Blum’s institute, says, “but if you put it as in-kind donations, I’d guess she has a couple of million dollars’ worth of talent working for her at any given time.”

One of those talents is a fire-safety scientist named Vytenis Babrauskas, who is considered a leading authority on furniture flammability. Babrauskas, the former head of the combustion-toxicology program for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, runs the consulting firm Fire Science and Technology in Issaquah, Wash. For many years, the chemical industry quoted his studies in support of Technical Bulletin 117, particularly one he did at the standards institute in 1987 in which a room filled with flame-retardant-treated chairs and electronics was set ablaze and compared with one in which the same furnishings were free of flame retardants. The oft-quoted result of the study was that the treated furnishings provided a fifteenfold increase in escape time.

That, after all, is the reason TB 117 exists — to keep people from dying when their couch catches on fire. “Deaths caused by furniture fires dropped from 1,400 in 1980 to 600 in 2004; a 57 percent reduction,” Chemtura wrote in response to my questions.

Three years ago, Blum contacted Babrauskas and invited him to attend a keynote address she was giving at a scientific meeting in Seattle. Afterward, they went on a hike. By the time the day was over, he had become her most potent ally in the battle against TB 117. It turned out that Babrauskas felt his study results had been distorted. He used a lot of flame retardants, he says, far more than anyone would ever put in a piece of furniture sold to consumers. “What I did not realize would happen is that the industry would take that data and try to misapply it to fire retardants in general,” he says.

In Babrauskas’s view, TB 117 is ineffective in preventing fires. The problem, he argues, is that the standard is based on applying a small flame to a bare piece of foam — a situation unlikely to happen in real life. “If you take a cigarette lighter and put it on a chair,” he says, “there’s no naked foam visible on that chair unless you live in a horrendous pigsty where people have torn apart their furniture.” In real life, before the flame gets to the foam, it has to ignite the fabric. Once the fabric catches fire, it becomes a sheet of flame that can easily overwhelm the fire-suppression properties of treated foam. In tests, TB 117 compliant chairs catch fire just as easily as ones that aren’t compliant — and they burn just as hot. “This is not speculation,” he says. “There were two series of tests that prove what I’m saying is correct.”

Before Blum met Babrauskas, the conventional wisdom was that the clash over flame retardants was a conflict between two competing public interests — the need to protect people from furniture fires and the need to protect them from toxic chemicals. But the more Blum studied the safety benefits of flame retardants, the more elusive their benefits seemed to be.

Still, the market is growing. In 1983, 526 million pounds of fire retardants were sold in the United States. By 2014, according to the Freedonia Group, a consulting firm, global demand is expected to reach 4.9 billion pounds. Whereas the sales of most chemicals are driven by consumer demand, flame retardants are marketed somewhat differently. They don’t kill weeds or whiten smiles or freshen laundry. In fact, furniture makers complain that flame retardants make foam stiffer and less comfortable. What drives fire-retardant sales is regulation — like Technical Bulletin 117 in California or two recently passed laws in Maryland and Nevada requiring that flame retardants be added to the foam in school-bus seats. While industry as a whole typically complains about being over-regulated, this is a case in which regulation serves some business interests and frustrates others.

“We sell comfort,” Bob Luedeka says of his foam manufacturers. “Comfort is also a state of mind, and the controversy is not helpful to raising the comfort image of our products.”

Six years after Blum encountered Luedeka at that first meeting, flame retardants are at the center of a national debate. “Generations of Americans have been asked to tolerate exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in their furniture in the name of fire safety,” Senator Dick Durbin said when he led a hearing on the chemicals in July. At the same hearing, James J. Jones, an administrator with the E.P.A., cited flame retardants as “a clear illustration” of all that is wrong with the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that governs the use of chemicals. Several states, including New York, have proposed bans on chlorinated Tris. (So far unsuccessfully, for the most part.) But nowhere has the fight over flame retardants been more bitter or more expensive than in California.

In 2007, full-page advertisements began appearing in newspapers across California. They showed a cluster of houses about to be engulfed by a wall of flame. “Don’t let Sacramento weaken fire safety,” the ad said. “Some politicians in Sacramento have proposed a sweeping ban of flame retardants that help prevent fires — and keep our homes and families safe.”

The ad was in response to the first of what would turn out to be four failed bills introduced by State Senator Mark Leno between 2007 and 2011 that sought to get flame retardants out of furniture. Despite having been in state government since 2002, Leno says he was unprepared for the fight over flame retardants. “I’ve authored landmark bills, first-of-their-kind bills,” he says. “But I’ve never experienced a lobbying effort as severe as this — and as contrived.”

Between 2007 and 2011, according to an investigation by Environmental Health News, manufacturers of fire-retardant chemicals spent more than $23.2 million defending Technical Bulletin 117. A significant portion of the money went to support an organization called Citizens for Fire Safety, whose Web site describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.” Over the past two years, the group has fought bills in more than a dozen states that would have banned flame retardants from children’s products.

Last year, Leno introduced California Senate Bill 147, which would have directed the Bureau of Home Furnishings to develop fire-safety standards for furniture that does not require flame retardants, something along the lines of a yet-to-be-adopted federal standard developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that tests whether furniture ignites when exposed to a smoldering cigarette. (Focusing on the entire piece of furniture, rather than the foam, allows manufacturers to use nonchemical solutions like barriers and less-flammable fabrics.) The bill had what seemed like a bulletproof array of supporters — dozens of organizations representing health officers, firefighters, furniture makers and environmental groups. Only three people spoke against it; all three had been compensated by Citizens for Fire Safety. One witness was David Heimbach, a burn doctor at the University of Washington who told a moving story about a 7-week-old baby girl he treated the year before. The baby’s mother had placed a candle in her crib, he said, and the candle fell over, igniting a pillow.

“She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital,” he told the senators. He asked them to do “anything to stop little children from being burned.”

But it seems there was no such baby, no such candle and no such pillow. Reporters working for The Chicago Tribune, which published a four-part investigation of the flame-retardant industry in May, could find no record of any infant who matched Heimbach’s description. Heimbach’s lawyer, Deborah Drooz, says that he changed the details of the story to protect patient identity. (The Tribune reporters did find a baby that died in a fire caused by an overloaded electrical outlet — circumstances that have little to do with flame retardants.) In the end, eight of the nine committee members voted against the bill. Those eight had received a total of $105,500 from chemical companies since 2007.

Early in April, Blum invited me to join her for a walk in Tilden Park with two of her friends: Donald Lucas, a combustion researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Jeanne Pimentel, the widow of a well-known chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, George Pimentel. “I just had about one of the worst weeks of my life,” Blum said when Pimentel inquired how she was. “Not the worst, the hardest. Our bill is dead.”

The bill was Assembly Bill 2197, the latest attempt to reverse Technical Bulletin 117 in the California Legislature. Similar in content to last year’s failed bill, it was introduced into the State Assembly in February. But at the end of March, Holly Mitchell, the bill’s sponsor, abruptly pulled out, citing other legislative responsibilities. Mitchell planned to reintroduce the bill in January, but Bum worried that by then momentum would be lost.

At the same time, Blum learned that the International Electrotechnical Commission, which creates global standards for electronics, was about to vote on a rule that would require the casings of televisions to resist ignition from small open flames like candles. If it passed, flame retardants would be added to every new TV in the world. Blum defeated a similar standard in 2008 with the help of Michael Kirschner, an environmental and supply-chain consultant. Now they had to do it all over again — and quickly. The next month, 27 countries would be voting on the standard. That meant initiating an international lobbying effort.

Blum usually comes alive on the trail, but now she walked with her head down. “Here we are at the summit,” she said flatly when we reached the top of the hill. “Yea.”

She looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay for a moment and then seemed to perk up a little. She had just realized, she announced, that there was a silver lining to the death of the legislation. “It frees us up to work on the candle standard, which is probably more important because it’s worldwide,” she said. Then she started back down the hill.

Over the next couple of weeks, Blum’s natural ebullience returned. It seemed there might be another way to reform Technical Bulletin 117 — directly through the Bureau of Home Furnishings rather than the Legislature. The bureau had a new head named Tonya Blood, and on May 1, Blood agreed to sit down with Blum and three other environmental advocates. The meeting lasted all afternoon. By the time it was over, Blum was exhausted but hopeful.

I spoke to her every couple of days after that, usually in the evenings. It wasn’t uncommon for her to call me with an update at 9 or 10 at night. Once, I asked her if she ever got tired of talking about flame retardants. She shook her head without hesitation. “Mountaineers are famous for their stamina,” she told me. “And I’m a little obsessed.”

The television candle standard had seemed impossible to defeat so late in the game — even Kirschner told me he wasn’t hopeful. But Blum was certain it could be done, and she rallied an international coalition through daily conference calls as they mobilized their opposition. “We’ve got a month,” she told them. “We’ve got to stop it.” One evening toward the end of May, Blum e-mailed me to say that the standard had been voted down by 40 percent of the countries. “I’m so happy I am crying,” she wrote.

There was other good news too. In June, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, directed the Bureau of Home Furnishings to begin the process of revising TB 117 so that chemical flame retardants are no longer mandated. A draft of the new regulation, which is similar to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s smolder standard, was released in July and could be in effect by this time next year.

At a recent bureau-sponsored workshop on the new standard, I asked Tonya Blood if her meeting in May with Blum had shaped what followed. “She did bring to light the environmental and health concerns with flame retardants,” Blood said. “She provided peer-reviewed science.” But Blood was discovering what Blum learned five years ago: when it comes to flame retardants, science is only one of the forces at play. “This is not a standard that will gain consensus and kumbaya,” she said with a wry grin.

The chemical industry made that clear at the workshop, voicing objections to what Greg Symes, a representative of I.C.L. Industrial Products, called “fear-mongering and emotional manipulation” by those who would eliminate the use of flame retardants. Two speakers from Chemtura were also there, as well as a pair of the industry’s longtime advocates, one of whom played a video that featured burning furniture. Having made sure she would be one of the last to speak, Blum sat in the audience with her laptop and built a PowerPoint presentation on the fly, layering in charts and graphs to rebut each of the chemical industry’s contentions. When her name was called, she carried her just-finished presentation on a thumb drive to the front of the room and proceeded to speak without notes, smiling and conversational, as if she were addressing a group of old friends. She finished, as she often does, with a slide of her own penta-infused couch being loaded onto a garbage truck.

Even if Blum succeeds in getting the chemicals out of couches, she has no plans to take time off to celebrate. The flame retardants in furniture, she says, are just the tip of the iceberg — there are hundreds of millions of pounds more of them embedded in electronics and building insulation. During a break in the workshop, she was already planning her next steps. “There’s still way too much to do,” she said.

Dashka Slater is the author of six books for children and adults. Her latest children’s book, “Dangerously Ever After,” is out this month.

Editor: Dean Robinson / NYT

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