Are Toxic Chemicals Lurking In Your Furniture?

A new documentary takes aim at the dangerous chemical fire retardants found in some furniture and mattresses

Spoiler alert: This story may freak you out and make you flaming mad. But it turns out that something to which you probably never give a lick of thought may be a lurking danger in your home, putting you and your kids at risk every day.

What’s this menacing beast? It’s flame retardant chemicals, and they're all over much of the furniture we own.

If you'd stopped to think about it (which, why would you?), you'd already know that flame retardants are loaded with potent chemicals. And if you’re like us, you’d be OK with some amount of chemicals in your home as a fair tradeoff for keeping you and your family out of fire danger, right?

But a new documentary set to air tonight on HBO warns us to rethink that conventional wisdom, and takes the industry behind the flame retardants to task. Toxic Hot Seat looks closely at the three chemical companies producing all this stuff we assume we need to protect us. And what the filmmakers uncover is greed, willful deceit, and a fortune in money paid to lobbyists and publicists to protect the companies’ bottom lines. (Yes, flame retardant chemical companies have a powerful lobby. Let that sink in.)

According to the film, such chemicals are seriously, urgently bad for our health -- responsible for such fearsome outcomes as cancer and birth defects. And what’s worse is they don’t even work to prevent fires.

So who’s at risk? Well, all of us. "One risk is to firefighters, who are coming down with rare cancers. The larger danger is to people sitting on those couches. Retardants are released as dust from the foam and accumulate on the floor. The greatest risk is probably to pregnant women and to small children, who are also more likely to be on the floor,” according to a New York Times report

The film makes the comparison with big tobacco’s notorious coverups -- and even says that those folks are involved in this issue too. The filmmakers seek to prove that, rather than tinkering with their own products and making self-extinguising smokes back in the ‘70s, the cigarette companies convinced fire safety officials to get behind a standard that requires furniture to be protected with these dangerous and ineffective chemicals. 

Are you completely alarmed yet? We are too. And it seems like there’s legitimately good reason to be. Consider this: This summer, researchers purchased 42 items of children’s furniture from major retailers, and tested them for flame retardant chemicals that have been connected with pretty terrifying health afflictions. According to the results of the Center for Environmental Health’s just-released study, as cited in the Times, and it appears that those toxins were found in nearly every last item.

The good news is the new HBO film points to the substantial and growing number of folks -- from legislators to journalists -- who are working to keep these chemicals out of our stuff. And their work could change what goes into the possessions we most intimately interact with -- like our mattresses and our kids' character sofas -- in the future.

One thing is for sure: We're setting our DVRs for this scary exposé. And we know we’ll be watching this issue -- one we never before thought a moment about -- seriously closely from here on out.

Do chemicals in your home concern you?

Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of home and travel blog Homebody in Motion. Follow her on FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter. 

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