WAHINGTON, DC — Furniture from six Congressional Office Buildings tested by Duke University’s Superfund Research Center found the toxic flame retardant, TDCPP in half of the pieces. The Environmental Defense Fund released the study results in support of Senate legislation to update the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). The House passed the TSCA Modernization Act 398-1 in June. EDF issued this release:
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced the results of tests conducted by Duke University’s Superfund Research Center on furniture in all six Congressional Office Buildings. Three of six samples tested positive for a toxic flame retardant, TDCPP. The chemical is widely used in household furniture despite evidence that TDCPP is a probable carcinogen and a developmental neurotoxicant. Current federal law allows even known harmful chemicals to remain in use.
“It’s crazy to think that there are toxic chemicals in the very furniture we’re sitting on while working to update America’s chemical safety law,” said Senator Tom Udall whose own Hart Senate office showed TDCPP. “It illustrates how prevalent these chemicals are and how Congress needs to act urgently to reform TSCA."
“Frankly, I am not surprised—these chemicals are ubiquitous and, until recently, impossible to avoid,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the Ranking Member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Even those who know the risks of chemicals in consumer products and work to avoid them often can’t protect themselves. This is exactly why it is so important to ensure that TSCA reform becomes law. EPA must have the tools to move quickly and decisively to remove dangerous chemicals from the products that millions of American families use every day.”
“These findings show no one can avoid being exposed to toxic chemicals,” said Dr. Richard Denison, Lead Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “Members of Congress are coming into daily contact with such chemicals even as we and others press them to protect the public. It’s just more proof that there is no safe place from toxic chemicals until our chemical safety law is brought into the 21st century.”
Toxic chemicals are widely used in American furniture thanks to the combination of a broken federal chemical law and an industry-driven California state requirement. For decades, flame retardant chemicals have been applied to furniture foam cushions in order to comply with a 1973 California flammability standard. A 2012 investigative report by the Chicago Tribune revealed that the standard was heavily influenced by chemical and tobacco lobbyists, rather than by evidence the requirement enhanced safety. Meeting that standard effectively required the use of chemical flame retardants, some of which are linked to serious health problems, including reduced IQ and fertility problems.
A recent update to the California standard allows—but does not require—furniture makers to meet the flammability standard without these flame retardant chemicals, but its impact remains to be seen. Manufacturers are not required to disclose which flame retardants they use, so the public cannot determine which flame retardant may be in their furniture without laboratory testing.
The main U.S. chemical safety law, the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), is widely viewed as a failure—providing virtually no protection from the thousands of chemicals Americans encounter every day in household products and materials. Under TSCA, chemicals like flame retardants are not required to undergo a thorough safety review in order to be used in products. Despite growing evidence that exposures to toxic flame retardants and other chemicals can have serious adverse health effects, TSCA does not give EPA authority to establish the safety of chemicals or effectively restrict the use of chemicals known to be dangerous.
Studies show that flame retardant chemicals do not remain encased in furniture, but become part of the dust that accumulates in the home, where they can then be ingested or inhaled. Research performed by Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University has found nearly all Americans carry flame retardants, including TDCPP, in their bodies. Small children are especially vulnerable and have even higher levels of exposure than adults, because they spend more time on the floor and are more likely to put their hands in their mouths (See Butt et al. 2014).
In the absence of a comprehensive system to evaluate all chemicals in use, harmful chemicals are often replaced by other toxic or untested chemicals. At a Senate committee hearing in 2012, Dr. Stapleton testified to this point, “When one chemical is phased out, another similar chemical is often used as a replacement and we know less about its potential health effects and exposure than the chemical it replaced.”
When concerns about the flame retardant chemical pentaBDE became clear, chemical manufacturers simply moved to a different chemical with similar concerns, TDCPP. And while pentaBDE was voluntarily phased out in 2005, items containing pentaBDE remain in many homes.
Environmental Defense Fund obtained samples of the foam in couches in each of the six main Congressional office buildings. The samples were sent to Duke University for testing, which found chemical flame retardants in half of the couches. The chemical TDCPP was found in couch cushion samples from the Hart Senate Office Building and the Rayburn and Cannon House Office Buildings. Tests did not find chemical flame retardants in samples from the Russell and Dirksen Senate Office Buildings or the Longworth House Office building. Congressional furniture is provided by the Architect of the Capitol and remains in use for many years. The varying results may be due to differing ages of the furniture.
The tests were conducted through a program offered by Duke University’s Superfund Research Center (http://sites.nicholas.duke.edu/superfund/). The program provides testing of chemical flame retardants in polyurethane foam for the public, free of charge. The Duke program also gives scientists a better understanding of which flame retarding chemicals are currently being used in furniture.
Environmental Defense Fund has long advocated for reform of TSCA, which has never been updated since it became law in 1976. Reform proposals are currently advancing in both house of Congress, with Senate action possible this summer. More information can be found at www.fixTSCAnow.org.
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