Earth Matters: Is your sofa more toxic than lead?



By Patti Wood

Through my recent work with the freshman class at Molloy College, I have been reading the back story about how the water in Flint, Mich., became contaminated with lead. It is actually a pretty familiar environmental justice story about politics, money and a vulnerable low-income community. The hero of this story is a young pediatrician who was determined to find out who was responsible for harming the brains of the children under her care —and to fix it! Her name is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and she documented her personal journey and the eventual change in the source of the water coming into Flint in her book, “What the Eyes Don’t See.” It is an inspiring read.

Under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead is zero. EPA came to this determination on the best available science, which shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Testing in Flint indicated serious systemwide lead contamination in drinking water, which eventually showed up as alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children.

The levels of lead in the blood of American children have declined significantly since lead was removed from gasoline and paint, but many children are still exposed to the metal in old paint chips, contaminated products imported from other countries and, yes, drinking water flowing through leaded pipes. Lead is a potent neurotoxin and early exposure to it may have lifelong consequences for cognitive function and behavior, including lowered I.Q.

We have remediated lead exposures to a large extent through individual actions and even laws. But lead in water supply pipes continues to put families across the country at risk, including here on Long Island. The good thing is we know where to look for the problem and how to solve it.

But that is not the case for flame retardant chemicals. Earlier this year, researchers reported that these chemicals surpassed lead as the biggest contributor to I.Q. loss and intellectual disability in children. The chemicals were also linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive and neurological harm.

Global treaties have listed them as persistent organic pollutants, which means they do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment; they travel far from the source of release and are distributed around the globe; they build up in people and other animals and they are harmful to life, causing long-term rather than immediate harm. What? Why aren’t we – and especially pediatricians – aware of this risk? How are we exposed to flame retardants?

Unlike lead, flame retardants are hard to find, even though they are present in many of the things we buy, especially for our children. And unlike lead, they are loosely regulated. Manufacturers do not need to prove that they are safe or even that they keep things from burning.

Flame retardants are typically found in upholstered furniture foam and fabric, carpeting, clothing, baby products, strollers, plastic housings for electronics, cables, car seats and car interiors, tents, children’s fabric playhouses and play tunnels and foam blocks, to name just a few. Flame retardant chemicals are unstable and they easily escape from treated products into household dust and air. We are exposed through inhalation, accidental ingestion and dermal contact, with children being more heavily impacted because of their natural hand-to-mouth behavior.

Equally concerning is the fact that flame retardants bioaccumulate up the food chain through the environment and are found in high concentrations in animal foods, including dairy products, fish, poultry, meat and eggs.

So, what is being done to remove these dangerous chemicals from consumer goods and our food supply?

To date  federal regulators have not banned their use, so even if a manufacturer stops using a particular flame retardant in a product, they often substitute a similar flame retardant chemical that scientists haven’t evaluated yet. This is a common industry practice when it comes to toxic chemicals used in the production of profitable goods – it is called regrettable or unfortunate substitution.

In 2010, a joint statement was signed by over 150 esteemed toxicologists, researchers and medical doctors from around the world to call attention to brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs) and the continuing pattern of unfortunate substitution. The National Institutes of Health commented on the statement in a report saying, “Just as we have known for years that significant exposure to lead occurred via house dust, why has it taken us so long to understand that BFRs and CFRs, which are used in consumer products, also can escape their matrix into house, office, car, and airplane dust, and also will end up in people, the environment, and wildlife? Why do we not learn from the past?”

To learn more about the risk of flame retardants, visit You can also do some detective work yourself, looking for labels that say “not flame retardant,” which you want, or “meets flame retardant standards,” which you do not want.

Manufacturers are responding to consumer demand. For instance, IKEA has been using the Six Classes approach for years, phasing out harmful flame retardant chemicals before they are regulated and instead using techniques and materials with flame retardant properties, like wool, making their products safer for people and the environment.

With a new administration in Washington and a new FDA and EPA, I hope we will see these harmful chemicals and many others removed from store shelves.


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