Toxic chemicals with links to cancer found in couches in Michigan

Peer-reviewed study finds toxic flame-retardant chemicals

The couch where Berkley (Mich.) mother Lisa Turner cuddles with her kids?

She was recently surprised to find out that the couch contained toxic flame retardants.

Turner's family supplied one of the eight Michigan samples of couch foam included in a national peer-reviewed study published today (Nov. 28) in Environmental Science & Technology; the study by scholars at Duke University and the University of California found toxic flame-retardant chemicals in 85 percent of couches tested.

Turner's couch included a flame retardant called Firemaster 550, which is made of four flame-retardant ingredients which are either known to be toxic or lack adequate information on their toxicity. Currently, furniture manufacturers are not required to disclose whether flame-retardants such as Firemaster 550 are used in their products.

“I had no idea that my couch contained toxic flame retardants,” according to Turner, a network engineer. “I have two small children and I use that couch when nursing my young son. Chemicals linked to cancer, learning disabilities, and reproductive harm shouldn’t be in the products we use every day.”

Seven Michigan families submitted foam samples from the eight couches to be tested for certain brominated and chlorinated flame retardants in the study.

Of the eight Michigan couches sampled, five contained harmful flame retardants. Two of the couches from Michigan contained penta-BDE, a polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) now banned in Michigan due to the hazards it poses to human health and the environment.

"Some flame retardant chemicals, such as PBDEs, persist in the environment for a long time and build up in the food chain,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at, a program of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. “PBDEs and other emerging flame retardants have been found in Great Lakes sediment, fish, wildlife, and people who live in the basin.”

Currently, furniture manufacturers are not required to disclose whether flame-retardants such as Firemaster 550 are used in their products.

“PentaBDE has been linked in human or animal studies to lowered IQ, hyperactivity, developmental and neurological disorders, and reduced fertility and hormone disruption,” according to Dr. William Bloom, a licensed psychologist and representative of the Michigan Psychological Association. “Children and the developing fetus are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of these harmful chemicals because of the rapid and complex nature of development.”

Two of the Michigan couches contained chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), a chemical banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s because it changed DNA. TDCPP was recently listed as a human carcinogen by the state of California.

Flame retardant chemicals gained national attention this summer after the Chicago Tribune ran a six-part expose on the efforts of the flame-retardant industry to conceal evidence on the toxicity of these chemicals and overstate their effectiveness as  flame-retardants.

As a result of the Tribune's series, the U.S. Senate environment and public works committee held a hearing into the safety of flame retardant chemicals.  After the hearing, the committee voted to approve the Safe Chemicals Act, the first effort in 36 years to reform the Toxic Substance Control Act, the law that oversees the safety of chemicals such as flame retardants. The Safe Chemicals Act is now waiting consideration by the full Senate.

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For more information, contact: Jeff Gearhart, 734-369-9276,

Published on November 28, 2012