Do BFRs (brominated flame retardants) offgas or persist in upholstery? Would they be in the stuffing of a sofa, or in the fabric cover?

Asked by Val Stein
Grand Junction, CO

I am in the UK and am not sure whether BFRs are still commonly used in furniture manufacturing. Almost bought a three-year-old used sofa, then started worrying about BFRs...


Mary Cordaro

Answered by Mary Cordaro

Southern California Areas, CA

Mary Cordaro, Inc.

August 2, 2010

Although the U.S. and the EU banned the manufacturing of certain types of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenylethers) by 2004, Britain’s progress on the regulation front is much slower and PBDEs have yet to be completely phased out.

You are right to be concerned, Val. PBDEs have gained a prominent place in the hierarchy of most toxic organophosphates because they are “bioaccumulative,” meaning they do not break down, but successfully persist and remain toxic in our environment. PBDEs have been found in:

  • human breast milk,
  • wild salmon and
  • the arctic.
  • In fact, PBDEs even stick to household dust.

As your polyurethane foam and Dacron sofa ages, for example, your house dust can get more and more contaminated, affecting your home air quality. Many people currently own PBDE-treated upholstered furniture, so it’s likely to be around for years to come in our homes, and it is impossible to predict how long it will remain as a persistent overall contaminant on the planet, and in our food chain.

And it’s not just PBDEs. The entire organophosphate family of flame-retardants (of which PBDEs are one member) is potentially toxic even if the compounds are not bioaccumulative, brominated, or chlorinated.

For example, some alternative non-brominated, yet potentially toxic, organophosphate compounds are used now in place of PBDEs in furniture, on fabrics, and in carpet padding. Other types of organophosphate flame-retardants, including some highly toxic types of chlorinated flame-retardants, are still used in foam joint sealants and foam insulation, and many other interior and building materials made from polyurethane foam. In fact, anything that’s made from polyurethane foam must be treated with some type of organophosphate flame-retardant compound to meet flammability regulations.

However, there is good news! We can control the contaminant levels of not only PBDEs, but of all toxic organophosphate contaminants in our own homes. Until all organophosphate flame-retardants in use are proven to be safe, I recommend following a precautionary course of action for textiles and polyurethane foam of any kind in the home:

  • Limit or stop all purchases of any furniture, carpet padding or any other interior items made from polyurethane foam and Dacron. (Dacron is “extruded” polyurethane foam.)
  • Ask before purchasing fabrics if they are treated with ANY flame-retardant chemicals, and purchase only 100% “permanent treatment-free” fabrics and textiles.
  • Replace older polyurethane foam furnishings first. Don’t just re-cover them. The new fabric will not magically trap the contaminants. And the fabric may be treated with flame-retardants, too!

If your home currently contains furnishings and/or carpet padding made from polyurethane foam, or flame-retardant-treated textiles, practice good dust control. Here’s how:

  • Vacuum your home frequently, including all furnishings, with a HEPA vacuum cleaner that meets current standards for air tightness. Nilfisk and Miele are excellent brands.
  • Use HEPA air cleaners, particularly in the bedroom where we spend one-third of our lives. Make sure to purchase TRUE HEPA. And get one with a good, large carbon filter. The best HEPA filters also contain up to 18 lbs. of carbon for filtering out both contaminated dust and VOCs.
  • Keep conventionally made upholstered furniture to a minimum, and when you’re ready to replace items, choose green furniture -- non-polyurethane foam versions, made from chemical-free and organic cotton and wool fill, and 100% natural latex and/or inner springs.

Hope this helps.


For more information:

Read Miriam Landman's Ask A Pro Q&A, "Can you recommend sources for green furniture?"

For more UK-specific info, go to the UK Environment Agency’s website. In the U.S., go to the EPA website.

You may also want to read "Consuming Chemicals," a study by Greenpeace on toxic house dust.

Tagged In: home air quality, green upholstery, organic fabric

Do you have a question about greening your home? GreenHomeGuide invites you to Ask A Pro. Let our network of experienced green building professionals – architects, designers, contractors, electricians, energy experts, landscapers, tile & stone specialists, and more – help you find the right solution.