Dec. 15 2015

Why Your Old Sofa Is Bad for Your Health

After pioneering research linking flame retardants with developmental problems, Julie Herbstman looks at ways to limit exposure.

Before Julie Herbstman almost nothing was known about the neurodevelopmental risks of flame retardants, like the ones lurking in your old sofa. As a post-doc at the Mailman School, Herbstman led the very first epidemiological study of one of the most common of these chemicals, establishing a link between prenatal exposure and lower IQ. Since joining the faculty, Herbstman and colleagues at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health have unearthed new risks, including behavioral problems. 

Flame retardants are everywhere, doused on polyurethane foam in everything from sofas and mattresses to car seats, even electrical wiring. First mandated by the state of California in 1975, widespread use of flame retardants was pushed by the tobacco industry so they could avoid making fire-safe cigarettes and by the chemical industry, which profited from what became the de facto national standard. In this sense, says Herbstman, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School, flame retardants and the health issues they’re linked to represent the “residual influence of the tobacco and chemical industries on all our lives.”

But thanks to researchers like Herbstman, along with pressure from activist groups, one class of chemicals—polybrominated diphenyl ethers—was phased out starting in 2006. Seven years later, the California rule was changed to allow for furniture without flame retardants. Retailers have jumped on the bandwagon. This October, Macy’s announced that it would phase out products with flame retardants following similar announcements by WalMart and IKEA. But since few people can afford to replace all their old furniture, Herbstman is looking at other ways to lower exposure in the home.

In a new video featured above, Herbstman describes an ongoing study looking at whether a clean home and clean hands can make a difference. Families in Northern Manhattan were given vacuum cleaners, mops, and dust clothes and asked to be vigilant about cleaning their homes and washing their hands. This matters because flame retardants are known to separate from the foam in furniture and settle in dust, which is accidentally ingested, often by children playing on the floor. “Our goal is to cut off the route of exposure,” says Herbstman.

This month saw the possibility of a different, potentially more powerful way to lower exposure to flame retardants. This December and January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering whether or not they should ban the chemicals from a variety of consumer products. Health officials, scientists, and activists are voicing their views. As one of the preeminent scientists in the field, Herbstman was asked to participate and has submitted a statement.

The implications of the hearing could go well beyond flame retardants, Herbstman says: this is the first time the CPSC or any federal group has considered regulating the use of any industrial chemical in consumer products for health reasons. If they decide to regulate flame retardants in sofas and elsewhere, there’s no reason they couldn’t regulate other toxins like phthalates and Bisphenol A. Says Herbstman, “It’s really a landmark case.”