The Fight Against Toxic Flame Retardants in Your Couch

A pioneering Seattle coalition wages a battle against toxic flame retardants, one couch at a time

Washington state Senator Sharon Nelson loved the comfy brown loveseat she bought for her office in Olympia. The couch gave her Statehouse digs a cozy feel. And curling up on it with her laptop for a precious half-hour now and then provided respite from the long hours at her desk and in her chair on the Senate floor.

Or it did until Laurie Valeriano came to town.

Valeriano is the executive director of the Seattle-based Washington Toxics Coalition. This spring, she traveled to Olympia toting a portable laboratory in a black, hard-shell case. Her instruments consisted mainly of a ray-gun-like device called an XRF and a sturdy pair of kitchen shears. Valeriano snipped a cupcake-size chunk of yellow foam from inside one of Nelson’s sofa cushions, stood the chunk of foam on a table, steadied the business end of the XRF up to it and pulled the trigger. Nelson held her breath.

Valeriano’s quarry was flame retardants. A dozen years ago, researchers began to link flame retardant chemicals, called PBDEs, to immune disorders, neurological deficits and impaired fertility. On this day, Valeriano was manning the portable test lab for the coalition’s science director, Erika Schreder, who became involved in the research 10 years ago and has worked doggedly against considerable industry opposition to get the poisons banned. “That’s when my hair turned white,” says Schreder, indicating, with a laugh, her shoulder-length, white mane.

Six years ago, Washington became the first state in the nation to prohibit the use of PBDEs. Other states followed Washington’s lead, and the industry eventually agreed to phase them out. PBDEs will linger among us for decades, nevertheless, Schreder says, leaching from our old sofas, infant seats and easy chairs, drifting inexorably into our house dust, our bodies, our babies, our wastewater, our wildlife and our food supply.

But Washington’s pioneering legislation had an Achilles heel: Although it banned PBDEs, it stopped short of stipulating that PBDE replacements be safer than their predecessors. And so, perhaps inevitably, the newer flame-retardant chemicals are not.

Two of the replacement chemicals are TCEP and TDCPP—collectively known as Tris. TCEP is linked to kidney and liver cancer, infertility and neurotoxicity of the brain. TDCPP causes testicular cancer and is toxic to developing brain cells, which can lead to learning disabilities. Under the monstrous eunuch of a regulation that is the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, it’s perfectly legal for manufacturers to produce known carcinogens like these and to incorporate them into consumer products as intimate as nursing pillows and crib mattresses.

And that’s why the coalition was back in Olympia this year with the XRF and scissors mutilating Nelson’s post-PBDE-era couch. Senator Nelson (D-Seattle) has introduced a bill in the Senate to ban Tris; Representative Kevin Van de Wege (D-Sequim) has introduced a similar bill in the House.

Van de Wege speaks with special authority when it comes to flame retardants. He’s a 14-year veteran of the Sequim Fire Department. Firefighters have sky-high rates of multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and testicular, skin, brain, prostate, stomach and colon cancers. When brain cancer killed Kent firefighter Bob Schmidt earlier this year, the Kent Fire Department considered it a death in the line of duty.

Says Van de Wege, “Almost anytime something catches on fire, we’re dealing with flame retardants.” Since the chemicals change the way objects burn, the fires produce more lethal smoke and gases. Smoke inhalation is the killer in accidental fires—and it keeps on killing long after flames have been snuffed out.

The more subtly devastating effects of flame-retardant chemicals on developing fetuses and children are harder to quantify, Schreder says. But upholstery doesn’t need to burn or rip open to release its toxic contents. With aging and regular wear, the chemicals escape from foam and settle in dust. Toddlers suck dust off their fists and toys. There’s a correlation between toxin levels in a child’s body and the toxin levels in the house dust within that child’s home.


Given the toxicity of most flame-retardant chemicals, is there an urgent need to load them into upholstered products, especially ones designed for babies? Probably not. Our sofas and nursing pillows were never that dangerous to begin with it, it turns out. Hijacked by the tobacco industry decades ago, these housewares became pawns in an unrelated battle.

It began in the 1970s and 1980s, when too many smokers were nodding off on their sofas with lit cigarettes, igniting murderous house fires. The surgeon general called for fire-safe cigarettes that would go out if a smoker wasn’t taking frequent puffs. But smokers didn’t want cigarettes apt to go out mid-smoke. So the tobacco industry launched a stealth campaign, instead, and successfully deflected the focus from “ignition sources”—i.e., lit cigarettes—to “fuel sources”—our overstuffed sofas and chairs. (The campaign was outed last year by reporters at the Chicago Tribune.)

The resulting demand for flame retardants created a lucrative market for chemical manufacturers, who borrowed from tobacco’s playbook. In 2011, Tris manufacturers created a California-based front group, Citizens for Fire Safety, which hired third-party spokespeople to use scare tactics on the chemicals’ behalf, including Dr. David Heimbach, the retired chief of the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center here in Seattle. Without acknowledging his paid status, Heimbach showed the Legislature graphic photos of a badly burned baby—the victim, he claimed, of a lit candle knocked into her crib. Tribune reporters discovered there was no such incident.

The outing of its dirty tricks prompted Citizens for Fire Safety to close its doors. But the scandal doesn’t seem to have changed the minds of legislators in Olympia who continue to oppose this regulation. One frequently offered objection to the state bill is that regulation should not happen as patchwork (state by state), but whole cloth, at the federal level—although the industry pours millions into fighting it there, too.

The Senate passed a watered-down bill in April banning Tris in some children’s products, but not in mattresses and furniture, and failing to give the state Department of Ecology authority to restrict the use of flame retardants if they prove to be harmful.

This last provision has been the biggest sticking point in the legislation, and Van de Wege and others hope to establish the authority to consistently ban chemicals and put an end to the toxic treadmill. As evidence of the need for the provision, advocates point to a recent change by baby-products maker Graco, which, in 2012, pledged to discontinue using Tris in its infant swings, carriers and playpens. Graco did make a switch: from Tris to TBBPA, one of a class of chemicals often called the “worst of the worst.”

In Senate hearings and during floor votes, Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) patiently stated and restated his opposition to giving the state agency power to ban toxic chemicals. The Department of Ecology can come back to the Legislature anytime and ask to get chemicals banned, Ericksen says, as was done with PBDEs and may be done for Tris. Nelson and others hotly disagree: Ericksen’s approach leaves industry unencumbered by regulation and allows it to drag out for years the process of getting any dangerous chemical banned—years during which people are unwittingly buying and stocking their houses, and offices, with poisons they’ll be living with for decades.

Senator Nelson’s sofa being a case in point. With her first grandchild on the way, Nelson was anxious to know just what was in that foam. “Sorry, Senator Nelson,” Valeriano said with a sympathetic grimace, “Tris.”

Nelson’s fantasies of cuddling on the sofa with her grandchild vanished in a flash. “My grandbaby,” she announced, “is going nowhere near that couch.”