November 20, 2013

Independent tests reveal kids’ products contain chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and other serious health problems

Media Release from the Canadian Environmental Law Association

Toronto, ON – Independent testing commissioned by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), with support from the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), has found harmful flame retardant chemicals in children’s chairs, couches and other kids’ furniture purchased from major retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Fire safety scientists say that flame retardant chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, infertility and other serious health problems, do not provide fire safety benefits in furniture.

“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame retardant chemicals when they sit on a mini-couch marketed to children, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” said CEH’s Judy Levin, co-author of the report “Playing on Poisons” released by CEH today. “Companies that sell these products need to know that parents want safer products made without these harmful chemicals.”

“These results confirm for us that Canada has a similar situation of unregulated and needless use of highly toxic chemicals in consumer products intended for children,” stated Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher with CELA.

In July and August, CEH, CELA and other partner groups purchased 42 items of children’s furniture from 13 states and two Canadian provinces. Items were purchased from major retailers and sent to Duke University researcher Heather Stapleton for laboratory analysis. Dr. Stapleton is one of the foremost researchers on testing for flame retardant chemicals in consumer products. Her previous studies on flame retardants in furniture, baby products and other consumer goods have been published in leading peer-reviewed journals and featured in major national news reports.

Dr. Stapleton’s analysis found four flame retardant chemicals (including two chemicals that are mixtures of various flame retardants) in 38 of 42 products tested. Two products contained more than one chemical.

The chemicals found were:

  • A proprietary mixture of five flame retardant chemicals (found in 22 items): studies have linked exposure to this mixture with obesity and disruption of the bodies’ natural hormone functioning. Hormone altering effects are especially troubling in children’s products, since children’s developing bodies are especially vulnerable to hormonal changes.
  • TCPP (Tris, 15 items): animal studies have linked exposure to TCPP to genetic damage and changes in the length of the menstrual cycle.
  • TDCPP (chlorinated Tris, 2 items) is identified as a chemical known to cause cancer by the state of California and the US National Research Council. Studies have also linked exposures to genetic damage, effects on fertility and natural hormones, and damage to developing embryos. Health concerns forced companies to remove TDCPP from children’s pajamas in the 1970’s yet it is still widely used today in furniture and other products. 
  • Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate (1 item): According to the USEPA, health concerns associated with exposures to Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate, a mixture of four chemicals, include decreased fertility and abnormal menstrual cycles.

Children are more vulnerable to toxic flame retardant chemicals than adults are because of their behaviors and physical needs. Children put their hands in their mouths often, and touch whatever is near them. Young children crawl and play where dust containing high levels of flame retardants settles in homes, daycares and schools. A (2011) study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research found that children carry on average three times higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies than the levels found in their mothers. Other recent studies in the US show that children of colour and children from low-income communities have higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies than levels found in white children.

Flame retardant chemicals are used in these products despite their lack of efficacy largely due to an outdated, decades-old California flammability standard called TB 117. Adopted in 1975, this standard calls for foam in furniture to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds. Yet this approach fails to meet real world conditions, since in a fire the outside fabric will ignite initially, not the interior foam. Fire safety scientists say that once fabric ignites, the fire will be too large to be controlled by the chemical flame retardants used in foam – thus rendering the chemicals virtually useless for fire safety.

This year, California proposed a new flammability rule, TB 117-2013, slated to go into effect on January 1, 2014. Companies may use the new standard to comply with the new rule immediately, but will have until January 1, 2015 before they are required to comply. CEH and its partner organizations expect many companies will make the switch to safer, flame-retardant free products quickly. The US Business and Institutional Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) has stated, “…we believe the risks associated with the use of these [flame retardant] chemicals is greater than the hazard associated with the fire risk from furniture without fire retardantsMany furniture purchasers are looking for safer, more environmentally friendly products that do not contain chemicals of concern, including fire retardants.

In addition to the Center for Environmental Health (Oakland and New York), organizations participating in the purchasing and testing include:

Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Clean and Healthy New York, Clean Water Action-Connecticut, Clean Water Action-Massachusetts, Ecojustice, Ecology Center, Healthy Legacy, Kentucky Environmental Foundation, Oregon Environmental Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Washington Toxics Coalition and Women’s Voices for the Earth.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association has over 30 years of experience working on research and policy efforts to protect children from harmful chemicals in our air, water, food, and consumer products. As an Ontario-based legal aid clinic, CELA undertakes client service, law reform, and public legal education on environmental law issues in the public interest. CELA is also a founding partner in the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment.


For more information:
Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher 705-341-2488 (cell)

Playing on Poisons