Flame Retardants in the Home
Many household items in North America contain flame retardants (FRs).
One of the biggest contributors in the home has historically been polyurethane foam. Many mattresses and most sofas contain polyurethane. Pillows, including nursing pillows, car seats, and child safety seats, carpet padding, foam insulation are sources of foam. Other non-foam sources in the home include curtains, electronics, and toys.
Outside the home, cars and camping gear are sources that we will also go over in this post.
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The 5 Most Important Things to do Right now to Reduce Exposure to Flame Retardants
- Use a HEPA vacuum to clean your house, including upholstery. Use other cleaning methods in the section on cleaning, including using wet wiping and washing hands before eating. This alone will cut exposure in half! (source)
- Throw out conventional upholstery with FR that is ripped and has exposed foam – this includes sofas, beds, car seats, child car seats, and pillows. Don’t try and save them!
- Get rid of foam items made before 2015, replace them with FR-free versions. I have posts on choosing FR-free, non-toxic mattresses and sofas.
- Your mattress should be the priority to replace no matter the age if it has FR, due to the time spent in bed and the proximity to the foam. If you can’t replace your mattress, encase it with this cover to reduce FRs from migrating out.
- Get rid of electronics made before 2008, replace with brands that have eliminated the most toxic FRs.
If you do not read further than this those five steps will have made a huge difference!
If you need assistance choosing the best FR-free furniture & mattress for your sensitivities, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
Flame Retardants That are Toxic
Here are the main classic toxic flame retardants found in the home that we are trying to avoid. However some items contain replacement FRs, that may be less toxic, or we may just know less about their toxicity profile.
Some of the FRs that can claim to be non-toxic are boric acid, newer chemicals that we don’t have as much data on, and aluminum-based FR which I am very concerned about, silver, Kevlar and nanoparticles.
Some FR are more embedded/bonded and more stable, and others drift out more easily or are topical treatments.
Flame Retardant Exposure By Source
Now that California has changed its policy requiring flame retardants in furniture, it is a whole lot easier to find beds and furniture without these toxic chemicals.
Even better, California law requires a label indicating whether there are chemical flame retardants or not in the furniture. These new laws took effect in January 2015.
What if you have older furniture containing more toxic forms of flame retardants like PBDE?
Mercola says, “be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down.
Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure” (source)
Flame Retardant-Free Couches
A lot of the big companies got rid of flame retardants in their couches that are manufactured after January 2015.
Many of the big companies now are free of chemical flame retardants, including Room and Board, IKEA, Crate and Barrel, West Elm and Pottery Barn and many others.
Keep in mind that these companies still use foams, glues, fabric finishes and possibly particle boards that do offgas. I review and compare companies making green couches in this dedicated post.
They are affordable, you can choose between natural latex and polyurethane, they are FR-free, and I was happy with all the glues, fabrics and wood used in them. The code MyChemFreeHouse10 will get you 10$ off.
A Common Question: Does IKEA use Flame Retardants?
This used to be a question that would result in a lot of run-around from the company. Now IKEA furniture (upholstered and mattresses) made after January 2015 and sold in the US and Canada does not contain flame retardants in the bedding and sofas. The stitch bond and zippers do contain chemical flame retardants, though I consider that to be very minor.
Flame Retardants in Mattresses
With mattresses, some of the big companies are also moving away from added flame retardants – companies like Sealy, Tuft and Needle, Casper and IKEA. Serta may use boric acid, but not the more toxic chemicals.
IKEA’s MAUSUND (previously Morongava / Sultan) is made of 85% natural latex with no polyurethane or FRs. It is is a fairly safe mattress. (There is 15% synthetic latex). It contains no polyurethane and no flame retardants.
I have a warning in Mattresses and Bedding about natural latex and mold.
See my post on mattresses to source and compare all-natural versions that do not contain synthetic materials or offgas harmful chemicals (you have to consider the fabrics, fabric treatment and glues as well as foams).
My Green Mattress can match this price point without the natural latex risk, or synthetic latex.
My top pick will always be Naturepedic, this is a favorite among those who are sensitive due to their organic and low odor materials.
Flame Retardants in Carpet
There are many companies making organic or natural fiber carpet, such as wool. For rugs, some good options include cotton, rattan or jute.
In my rug post I go over the companies that are committed to making area rugs without toxins.
Non-toxic FR-free carpet is covered in the post on flooring.
Conventional carpets from big box stores contain a long list of chemicals including flame retardants. Many big box stores now carry carpet brands with the Green Label + certification which is not a low enough level for sensitive folks.
Always ask about FRs, since these are not considered VOCs, and may be found in the rug padding.
Be careful when removing old carpet as the FRs can become scattered as dust. Do not do this yourself if you are sensitive.
Flame Retardants in other Polyurethane Items
Car seats are unfortunately an unavoidable source of flame retardant. To reduce exposure, use a HEPA vacuum as described in the section on cleaning to vacuum the seats and change clothing when you get home.
Leather seats might be preferable, depending on if the leather itself was treated. Leather, in theory, should reduce the migration of FR out from the foam.
Child car seats often contain FR, but you can buy specialty ones without added chemicals. The UPPAbaby car seat is my top pick with no flame retardants and no chemical treatments on the fabric.
If you are not sure if your polyurethane item contains FR, ask the company, check the date and labels. You can also send a sample of foam to Duke University for free testing, if somehow you have access to the foam inside.
Some companies do provide samples of their foam. If you have a tear in the item this would be another opportunity to send it in for testing.
Flame Retardants in Fabrics
It’s hard to know which curtains contain FRs as they will not be labeled.
I would assume that curtains from hardware stores and conventional stores do contain flame retardants (as well as possibly a formaldehyde finish).
GOTS certified fabrics and curtains from green companies will be safer.
I have a post on window coverings with chemical-free options for all types of window coverings.
Clothing, like Children’s Pajamas
Children’s pajamas used to contain toxic FRs, but now it is very rare that they do.
If you want to wash out the FRs from curtains and other cloth items see the section on cleaning below.
Flame Retardants in Insulation
Rigid Foam Insulation
HBCD is typically used in polystyrenes including EPS and XPS. TCPP is typically used in polyisocyanurate foams (source).
There is no EPS or XPS insulation without flame retardants on the market currently (source).
GAF polyiso EnergyGuard-NH uses a halogen-free flame retardant, not TCPP, which is safer.
Spray Foam Insulation
Flame Retardants in Electronics
PBDEs were phased out of electronics in the US and Europe in 2013. It does seem that these chemicals leach from electronics (source). TCPBA and TBBPA are often used on the circuit boards as well as the plastic external casings. There are a dozen different FRs that might be present in electronics (source). Organohalgens (halogenated flame retardants) became the biggest concern after PBDR. They have mostly been phased out of electronics and were replaced with phosphate FRs and other newer chemicals, often aluminum-based, which I don’t consider safe (source).
In 2017 TVs were tested and Best Buy brand Insignia, was not testing positive for the most harmful FRs, though we still (2019) don’t know which one they are using. All other TVs tested positive. Two contained banned FRs (PBDE)!
Computers and phones with aluminum cases (like Apple laptops) and phones with real glass components can be assumed to not contained FRs on those parts. This would greatly reduce exposure.
Flame Retardants in Camping Equipment
Most tents, sleeping mats and sleeping bags contain flame retardants. I go through the brands that explicitly do not use any flame retardants in my post on camping equipment.
How to Clean up Flame Retardants in the Home
1. Get a HEPA Vacuum
Flame retardants become mobile in dust as opposed to in gas. So keeping a dust-free home is of utmost importance. David Suzuki says household dust is one of the most significant sources of childhood exposure to toxic substances. On top of flame retardants, dust contains phthalates, metals, like lead, mercury and arsenic, and pesticides.
A HEPA vacuum is necessary to clean up these toxins and will be one of the biggest improvements to air quality in the home that you can do right now.
The Nilfisk brand is recommended by the experts and is affordable. This is my first choice for most situations.
You get a lot of bang for you buck if you add a HEPA filter to a Shop-Vac (HEPA filter bags are also needed to catch all the fine dust) compared to the high end. but great quality, Miele HEPA. The shop vacuums are louder.
If you have a more serious contaminate like lead, go for a certified HEPA model like Festool which is more foolproof in its filtration system.
2. Wet Wipe, Don’t Sweep!
Vacuuming is more effective than other forms of cleaning, and you should use an attachment to vacuum upholstered furniture and mattresses as well. Don’t forget about your car seats!
Sweeping is not a good idea but wet wiping with wet clothes (that don’t contain FRs or harmful plastics) is the next best method. Wet wipe the dashboard of your vehicle as well.
If you need to dry wipe something sensitive that can’t get wet, use materials that capture dust like microfiber cloths and Swiffers.
3. Using Air Filters
The best way to remove particulates from the air including dust and FRs is a HEPA air filter. If you don’t need to filter for VOCs, you only need a simple HEPA filter with a high enough CFM to move enough air in a room to make a dent in the dust.
I use the Vornado which has true HEPA, a good CFM and is very well priced. It has some carbon and a PCO element. It is the best value I have seen for an air purifier with these three technologies. I have a post with more details about the Vornado and what CFM means in terms of airflow here.
Other basic air filters can be used like the Honeywell and GermGuardian. Make sure it’s true HEPA, has a decent CFM, and is not too loud. Some Honeywells are known for being loud. One other point of comparison is the cost of replacement filters.
If you want to pair up HEPA with a VOC filter to help with offgassing, you will be looking at more expensive brands. I compare all the best ones for folks with chemical sensitivities in this post.
4. Can you Wash Flame Retardants out of Fabric?
Fabric Softener is often mentioned as being able to remove FR due to the warning against using it on treated fabrics. However, it does not actually remove the FR chemicals, it only coats the fabric.
Once the fabric is washed in regular detergent it retains its FR properties. Using soap (as opposed to detergent) also coats the fabric.
The soap and fabric softener coating can be flammable, and that appears to be the reason why it’s not recommenced on treated clothing.
There are different types of FR added, some are bonded into the fabric and some are treatments added. There is more than one chemical FR that is added topically to fabrics including tents, and there may be different strategies to remove them.
Folks are trying hot water, soaking, acidic soaks like vinegar, and enzyme cleaners. I am gathering more evidence for the effectiveness of these strategies.
Chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants are the most common ones found in laundry wastewater but older generation FRs like PBDE were found as well. These are not coming from treated clothing, but from dust in the house from furniture and electronics and other household items.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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