In an effort to make homes safer, chemical fire retardants have been added (often due to federal mandate) to scores of products, from foam couch cushions to desk chairs to carpet pads, and draperies to mattresses. There are many different types of retardants, but PBDEs and TDCPP are the most concerning. "PBDEs aren't used very often anymore, but they're definitely still around," says Dr. Gina Solomon, deputy secretary for science and health at the California Environmental Protection Agency. "PBDEs harm thyroid function and brain development, while TDCPP is a listed carcinogen. The other big problem with PBDEs is they can accumulate in the environment and concentrate in human fat, which lets them linger in the body long after exposure."
Sharp says newer fire retardants coming to market may be just as hazardous, but fortunately laws are changing, and soon furniture manufacturers won't be required to use so many of them. The bad news is you really have no way of knowing what chemicals are used on home goods. So unless you ditch your La-Z-Boy for a metal chair, they are tough to avoid.
Here's what you can do, though: Clean well and clean often. "People are mostly exposed because these chemicals accumulate in household dust," Solomon says. "So vacuum regularly with a good vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter." Also be sure to dust everything – including electronics, which gather gobs of dust – at least once a week. It's also possible to find companies that manufacture flame retardant-free furnishings. Click here for the Green Policy Institute's list, or check out eco-blogs and forums, which often have suggestions.