Kaiser Permanente will become the first health system to get rid of toxic flame retardants in furniture.
The healthcare system announced earlier this month that it will only buy furniture without flame retardants, because these chemicals have been linked to reproductive delays, cancer and other health problems. Studies show that pregnant women and children are especially sensitive.
Ironically, it was California, where Kaiser Permanente is based, that originally pushed for strict flame retardant rules (Calif. TB 117) for upholstered furniture and other products decades ago. At the time, experts believed these chemicals were needed to protect people from flaming couches and chairs.
But it turned out that what best protected people from flaming furniture was for smokers to quit igniting them with their forgotten butts.
Now that fewer people smoke, and with the history of this issue showing that the flame retardants don’t work so well anyway, health experts have urged a move away from flame retardants.
The new science shows that greater dangers lurk in the flame retardant chemicals used in furniture cushions, carpets and curtains.
The Natural Resources Defense Council explains the threat:
“Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies. Children exposed in the womb have lower IQs and attention problems. Other studies have linked flame retardants to cancer, male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls. A recent study in animals has linked toxic flame retardants to autism and obesity.”
Still, most furniture and mattresses sold in the US be doused with these toxic chemicals. Practices have improved, with one particularly dangerous chemical known as Tris having been replaced by chemicals believed to be less toxic.
Some mattress and furniture companies now offer alternatives to chemical retardants, such as cushions wrapped in wool, which is considered a natural flame inhibitor.
Even firefighter groups have complained about flame retardants because they created a toxic gas in house fires, but regulations and the general practice of dipping cushions in flame retardants continues.
Kaiser’s plan is to make sure that all of its new furniture — which is no small amount at about $30 million worth per year system wide — will meet flame retardant rules without toxic chemicals.
The decision to shift its purchasing comes after the state of California updated its flammability standard for upholstered furniture to allow chemical-free compliance.
The Kaiser organization is working with its furniture manufacturers to meet the new standard and will see safer furnishings in its hospitals within one to three years.
"Where there is credible evidence that a material might result in harm to the environment or public health, we work to replace it with safer alternatives," said Kathy Gerwig, vice
president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente's environmental stewardship officer.
Since most of us are living with, and will have to continue to endure some exposure to flame retardants, the NRDC has issued a list of how to minimize negative health impacts.
How to reduce your exposure to flame retardants
- Vacuum carpets with a vacuum that contains a HEPA filter.
- Damp mop floors and damp dust furniture on a regular basis.
- Wash hands frequently, especially before eating. Don't eat on your couch!
- Choose naturally flame resistant fabrics and fill such as wool, cotton or jute.
- Call manufacturers to ask about their use of flame retardants.
- Check the label before you buy upholstered furniture and if you live outside of California, don’t buy furniture that carries a TB 117 label.
- Vacuum and wipe down your car’s interior regularly.
- Sign the online petition: Take the Toxic Chemicals out of my Couch
Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, said he hopes the Kaiser Permanente move will build momentum in the healthcare sector for quitting flame retardants and using safer alternatives.
“The Healthier Hospitals Initiative is working with 1,000 hospitals across the country to protect public health and prevent disease through implementing sustainability strategies. We will utilize this broad hospital network to drive toxic flame retardants out of healthcare and create the demand for their phase out from our schools and homes as well," Cohen said.
The healthcare sector, which represents 18 percent of GNP, is well-positioned to push forward the cause of removing flame retardants from furniture, said Seema Wadhwa, director of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative.
“Kaiser,” she said, “is setting a trend.”