The Toxic Chemicals That Lurk in Cushy Old Couches

Flame retardants seemed like a great idea—until pumping furniture full of chemicals was questioned.
May 3, 2015· 0 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Like so many innovations that time forgot, it seemed like a good idea at first: In the 1970s, furniture manufacturers began treating cushions and upholstery with flame retardants to curb deadly house fires. The idea was that the inherent threat of an errant lit cigarette or unattended candle could be reduced by using chemicals to treat everyday materials like fabrics or the stuffing that makes a couch cushy.

As this Retro Report from The New York Times explains, the use of these chemicals spread like, well, wildfire in the furniture industry. But the very chemicals that were intended to save lives ended up having their own negative health effects, problems that weren’t discovered or understood for years. Because the chemicals didn’t bond with the foam inside cushions and mattresses, they leached out into homes, settling in dust or on surfaces.

The effects of those chemicals has been observed in developing nervous and reproductive systems, according to Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences.

“In a population of children that have been exposed to the flame retardants, those children have lower IQ, more difficulty learning,” Birnbaum told the Times.

In addition, there are questions about whether those chemical treatments can stop fires—though chemical industry experts assured the Times that the chemicals help delay the start of a fire and should be credited with a national drop in house fires.

It’s worth noting that smoking is less popular than it ever was too.