Testing Berkeley homes for hazards: What we found

Tag on an infant wedge pillow in Belinda's house

Tag on an infant wedge pillow in Belinda Lyons-Newman’s house. Photo: Belinda Lyons-Newman

By Belinda Lyons-Newman and Tong Xiao

Tong Xiao and Belinda Lyons-Newman recently tested a number of North Berkeley homes for chemical health hazards following scientific studies on the dangers to children in particular. They write about how they tested, what families can do, and where you can find information. 

Before I (Belinda) had kids I might have dismissed a story like this. I believed that government regulation would intervene in the case of anything truly unsafe. Now, as a parent who has researched the safety of dozens of products as part of making decisions for the health and safety of my children, I am amazed at the extent to which chemicals with proven serious negative health impacts on children are not only on the market, but ubiquitous and hard to avoid, even here in environmentally conscious Berkeley.

This January nine families from our daughters’ North Berkeley preschool got together and rented an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) detector to test the safety of products in our homes. These devices are used primarily for elemental analysis in environmental studies and in consumer product testing in industry. We wanted to test our household furniture for bromine- and chlorine-based flame retardants (mostly in polyurethane foams) or lead, both of which are known to cause health hazards including infertility, developmental delays, lowered IQs in children and cancer.

We were surprised to see our testing reveal that we have serious hazards in our homes. It seemed telling that even in Berkeley among parents who, like many Berkeleyans, buy organic mattresses, buy expensive designer baby products and in our case spend our weekends testing our homes for hazardous materials in order to best protect our children, homes had high levels of materials known to be hazardous. This is a major health issue and we wanted to share our story and research so that more Berkeleyans know how pervasive this is and can know how to mitigate the risks.

How the project began

Xiao Tong

Xiao Tong: concerned about hazardous chemical in the home

Two months ago, one of us, Tong Xiao, read an article from the journal Nature, “Cancer-causing flame retardants linger on in California,” about cancer-causing flame retardants and heard a related science program on NPR about the prevalence of flame retardants (PBDEs and Tris) in household products and house dust on the same day. She became concerned as to whether toxic materials might be present in her own home.

Tong’s family owned furniture including two couches, a leather chair and a nursing chair purchased between 2002 and 2008. All such furniture, we later learned, uses polyurethane foam for the bottom cushions. We never thought to ask about what chemicals might be in there. Unlike the food industry, where all ingredients are required to be listed on the label to inform consumers of what they are buying, the furniture industry has no such requirement. There is minimal information provided on furniture labels such as that it contains polyester, or polyurethane, but there is no disclosure of the chemicals introduced during the manufacturing process. A 2011 study found flame retardant in 80% of baby products with polyurethane foam, including car seats and nursing pillows. After reviewing the research she realized that the only way to know for sure what was in our furniture would be to test it ourselves.

An Internet search pointed to two options for testing our home: Mail cut-out samples to a professional lab or use a portable XRF detector for in-home testing. We chose the second option because the results would be available immediately and we determined that if we could find like-minded families to share the rental cost, then this option would also be more economical. As scientists, Tong and her husband were also drawn to the opportunity to experiment with a new gadget.

Known hazards

The negative health impacts of both flame retardants and lead are well documented. The main flame retardants used in couch foams are Tris and PBDEs. Tris, also known as Tris (1-3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate, was once used to treat children’s sleepwear, but was withdrawn in the late 1970s after concerns were raised by Arlene Blum, a Berkeley scientist, that it can cause cancer. Chlorinated Tris and most other flame retardants are halogenated chemicals — which include the elements bromine, chlorine, fluorine, iodine and astatine — are highly reactive and can be extremely toxic at high enough doses.

PBDEs refer to polybrominated diphenyl ethers. They are a class of persistent, endocrine-disrupting compounds widely found in foam furniture, electronics, carpets, upholstery and other consumer products. Since the chemicals are not cross-linked to the treated materials, they can easily leach out into the environment and are inhaled or ingested through dust, then accumulate in human fat cells. California children’s exposures to PBDE-related flame retardants are among the highest worldwide. Numerous animal studies have shown that PBDEs are endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins.

Over the last decade, there has been significant evidence of adverse health effects from PBDE exposure. A PubMed search for “PBDEs” and “health” yields hundreds of research articles. These adverse impacts include decreased fertility in women, low birth-weight babies, changes in hormone levels, as well as degraded fine motor function, attention, and IQ in children. Children are the most vulnerable population because they accumulate pollutants, such as carcinogen and endocrine disruptors, in much higher levels than adults.

Lead is another toxic substance that can appear in the home. Although it has not received particular media attention of late, lead toxicity is a well-known hazard, dating to Roman times. Lead exposure impacts many organ systems, including the heart, bones, and reproductive systems. Even at very low levels, lead is a potent neurotoxin, particularly in children. Lead interferes with nervous system development and can cause permanent damage that affects learning and behavior. Today, indoor dust remains a main factor contributing to the elevated blood lead level in children (based on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data).

A 1975 California law, Technical Bulletin 117, requires polyurethane foam in furniture and children’s items to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. To comply, most manufacturers douse the foam with flame retardants before their products are sent to retailers nationwide. Beyond the health hazards caused by these flame retardants, studies show that they do little to delay the spread of fire.

Many attempts have been made to enact legislation to change this flame retardant standard, however, according to Arlene Blum, now executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, the major flame retardant chemical manufacturers have done everything they can to successfully defeat such legislation. A 2011 research report found that top flame retardant manufacturers, their trade groups and lobbyists contributed at least $23.2 million over the last five years against legislation to change the outdated flame retardant law.

DIY testing and our results

A leather chair in Tong's house that tested positive for lead.

A leather chair in Tong’s house that tested positive for lead.

Tong reached out to the other parents in our daughters’ preschool and got together nine families interested in jointly renting the XRF detector. Tong rented an XRF detector from a local company in the Bay Area. The machine costs $600 per day to rent and we all contributed in order to test items in our home. We set up a schedule for Tong to come to each house over the course of a weekend this past January. Each family was asked to make a list of items to test and Tong came over and tested the items.

After two days of testing, we compiled and analyzed our results. The testing found high levels of bromine and chlorine-based flame retardant in all homes and high lead contamination in several of the homes. On average, we tested 18 samples per household. Almost all polyurethane foams tested show high level of bromine or chlorine, which indicated the present of bromine and chlorine-based flame retardant. The only couch cushion that did not contain bromine or chlorine was one family’s vintage 1960s couch stuffed with horsehair.

Four homes showed high level of lead in the walls, doors, windows and trims. Surprisingly almost all leather couches and chairs contained high lead levels — around 1,800 ppm.  For lead, 90 ppm is the upper limit mandated by Federal law.  The painted pine antique collection from one home also showed extreme high levels of lead. This family had already tested these antiques with a lead testing kit purchased from the hardware store, but that test yielded no findings.

One of the parents, Sharyl Rabinovici, was grateful for this opportunity to collaborate with other parents to test the safety of furniture in her home.

“As a member of society with above average economic resources and educational training, I’m appalled by how hard it still is for individuals and families to make progress on this issue by working on their own,” she said. “This experience reaffirms my sense that we need more collective action.”

Arlene Blum. Photo: Pete Rosos

Arlene Blum: Being conscientious and living in Berkeley does not, on its own, make for safer homes. Photo: Pete Rosos

Blum explains that being conscientious and living in Berkeley does not, on its own, make for safer homes. She and her colleagues tested 102 couches and all of them contained hazardous flame retardants. Most couches (85%) contained toxic or untested flame retardants in their foam. All couch samples from California contained flame retardants.

“We have few options than to have these unsafe couches at this time as the flame retardants are de facto mandated by the outdated furniture flammability standard,” Blum said. “The only current options are to buy organic furniture, which is extremely expensive, or to not have a couch.”

What families can do

After the testing, Tong also contacted the store that sold her the lead contaminated couch, a Berkeley local business, and told them about the results of our test. To her surprise and relief, the store owner offered to promptly remove the couch from our home, which they did two days later, and refund our money. The store owner said that they were never aware of the lead in leather upholstery. She also replaced all our polyurethane foam with natural latex cushions. 

For parents concerned about the safety of furniture, the first step is to know the products. If furniture bears a label saying says it contains polyurethane and it complies with California TB117, the foam will commonly contain up to 5% PBDEs or Tris by weight. If a house was built before 1960, or if furniture contains paint from before 1960, a paint chip should be tested. (XRF can test a few millimeters below the surface. This works better than a surface swab used for most home lead testing kits.) Leaded pigments have been found in purses and upholstery leather. Leather furniture with a shiny finish should be tested for lead contamination.

Replacing these toxic products with safe ones is the best solution. If replacing a product is difficult, then seal, clean and wash it to reduce exposure. First, use plastic to seal the foam to prevent further dust formation. Then thoroughly clean the house with a wet cloth and vacuum with vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter. Last, wash your and your children’s hands frequently to avoid ingestion. Blum explained the ingestion process: “It goes from the furniture to dust to hands to mouth to the body.”

Hope on the way

Recently the state of California released a draft updated flammability standard, TB117-2013, that provides better fire safety without the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals by July 1, 2014.

Blum’s Green Science Policy Institute is organizing citizens to provide public comment to the state in support of these revised standards. Blum says she is optimistic that the new proposed standard will be approved this time, despite heavy opposition and lobbying against it by the flame retardant chemical industry. Flame retardants are not needed to meet the new standard, so once it is implemented it will be possible to buy flame retardant free furniture.

Tong Xiao is a scientific consultant. She lives in the Berkeley hills with her husband Michael and twins Allison and Claudia. Belinda Lyons-Newman is a nonprofit management consultant. She lives in the Berkeley Gourmet Ghetto with her husband Dan and daughters Ella and Lilia.

Places to buy eco-friendly products:
FoamOrder.com, a Bay Area business that offers custom natural latex cushions
Ecofabulous.com, a website that tracks stylish, eco-friendly products
Essentia: Eco-friendly mattresses, with a store on Berkeley’s 4th St.
Elka Home
Cisco Home
European Sleepworks

XRF detector rentals: Equipco (Renting an XRF detector is not usually available for individual consumers and operating the detector requires training. We are currently exploring ways to help our local community get access to in-home testing.)

More information
The Green Science Policy Institute provides unbiased scientific data to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products.

Information at Heathystuff.org is based on research conducted by environmental health organizations and other researchers around the country. Over 5000 products have been evaluated by the organization, with new resulting being released throughout the year. It is a great resource for parent to learn about the safety of products, such as carseats, cribs, and toys.

Snapshot: Arlene Blum, scientist, author, climber, activist [03.06.12]

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  • curiousjorge

    this is a great opportunity for business owners selling baby-friendly foam to chime in! I looked at foamorder.com and quickly realized that I would prefer to hire someone local to take measurements, swap out my cushions, and do the re-upholstering. I’m sure I’m not alone!

  • The_Sharkey

    The saga around flame retardants in furniture is really quite interesting.
    We forced manufacturers to add these chemicals we’re complaining about now.


  • berkeleykev

    Anyone doing any remodeling should know about the risks of lead paint and how to mitigate it. Contractors are required by federal law to have EPA Lead-Safe Work Practices certification if they are working on homes older built before 1978. There is a database to check if your painter or carpenter is certified. http://cfpub.epa.gov/flpp/searchrrp_firm.htm Fines are up to $37,500 per violation, and it is possible to have multiple violations all from the same job.

    Homeowners are not required to be EPA certified to work on their own homes, but there are other regulations that can affect them, and regardless of law it is a good idea to be aware of best practices.

    One clueless homeowner or painter with a sander and a (non-hepa) shop vac can pollute a large area. http://www.epa.gov/getleadsafe/

  • Woolsey

    Great article – If parents take action, this could really benefit their kids. Years ago, when our kids were small, we needed a doctor’s prescription to get beds for them without flame retardants. More recently, we were also able to have our couch re-upholstered with latex without any added chemicals (we should have done it years ago). Unfortunately, many furniture vendors are not knowledgeable regarding the issues or even what’s in their own products and may provide inaccurate information. The lead in leather problem was new to me. I suppose it comes from the dyes. I would guess that if the manufactures were aware of the problem, they could find substitute dyes. It’s great that you have identified this possible source of lead exposure.

    Technical Bulletin No. 117 is a sad story of regulatory capture. As noted in the article, all upholstered furniture manufactured or sold in the State has to meet the flammability standards specified in the bulletin which was promulgated by the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. California is the only state that has such a requirement, however, manufacturers have tended to produce products meeting California standards even for products sold in other states, thus contaminating even more people. “Some of the highest PBDE concentrations in the world have been found in California homes and residents.” per California OEHHA.

    The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is on the verge of approving regulations to implement the California Green Chemistry Initiative. These regulations have the potential to address chemicals in consumer products that are a risk to health. Of course, they are getting lots of push-back on the regulations. Contact your legislator, or DTSC if these regulations are released again for public comments). We should have a state agency that carries out investigations like these parents. Most parents will not have the money, time, or knowledge.

    The Marin Medical Society has a good discussion of these issues at:”Childhood Exposure to Environmental Toxins.” Also, a HEPA vacuum is your friend!

  • Name

    how did humans manage to survive before we had these laws and databases?

  • Bill Newton

    Of course the average human only lived to their mid thirties too.

  • i’m curious about these flame retardant requirements. fire safety needs to be taken extremely seriously, but is it really that difficult for the average person to wake up/get out of a bed or other furniture quickly if there is a fire? it seems to me that only babies and people who can’t walk would be in danger of a burning cushion or mattress–so only a tiny segment of the population. have they made a substantial difference in safety outcomes? do other fire safety measures trump furniture flame retardants in terms of lives saved/injuries prevented? note: i have not read the article yet but i am going to.

  • Name

    not since the 1800s.

  • berkeleykev

    I don’t think I said anything about survival. Lead poisoning affects reasoning (ahem), digestion, behavior, and many other things. If you doubt that, maybe you should get your blood lead levels checked.

  • berkeleykev

    “We” forced them..??
    More like Big Tobacco forced us to allow them…


  • berkeleykev
  • Japhy Writer

    These newfangled laws and databases follow on the heels of globalization, mass production, and increasing human impact far removed from the decisionmaker. Bundled with all the comforts of modern life are complex and widespread demands on resources and a host of unintended consequences. So yes, we could do away with laws and databases, but if you hunt or gather on my land I will cut you.

  • Ambrose Jones

    I forgot about the whole lead thing with renovations. Our next door neighbor just sold his place and they are doing all sorts of rebuilding. I wonder if we’re in danger from lead dust, etc.
    Great article, by the way. We are being poisoned on so many levels–gmo foods rife with pesticides, geo-engineering, phthalates in perfumes and fragrances, formaldehyde in construction materials and carpet, flame retardants….the list goes on and on. East Bay Nursery on San Pablo Ave sprays Round-Up (glyphosate) all over the sidewalks regularly. Rat poisons at warehouses and schools. Fabric softeners, cosmetics, radiation from Japan and all the nuclear bomb tests, microwaves from smart meters……

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Happening all over Berkeley and in your neighborhood…as i drive around Berkeley everyday i see painters removing paint illegally it’s been going on for years all because people pick the lowest bid without asking about the workplace practices BTW also endangering the workers but nothing is ever said or because most of the workers hired by these painting contractors are here ILLEGALLY and people continue to do business with these frauds calling themselves “painting contractors”
    most of these “contractors” don’t even own the Hepa vacuums that they are supposed to be using because they are very expensive

  • Julie Twichell

    Thanks for all the great info. Most homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint. It’s when the paint deteriorates, rubs on friction surfaces like windows, or is disturbed during renovations that lead dust hazards are created. The Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program offers free in-home lead consultations to help you assess potential lead hazards in your home and how to reduce your exposure. They have lots of good information on-line at http://www.aclppp.org and a public information line at 510-567-8280.

  • Name
  • berkeleykev

    Yes, yes and yes.
    If your “contractor” doesn’t give you the EPA pamphlet on Lead-Safe Work Practices and the RRP (renovation, repair and painting) before the job starts, that’s a $37,500 violation right there.

    (By the way, if you as homeowner pick up a couple of guys at 4th street to gut your kids’ room, you are now a contractor, and need to abide by worker’s comp. laws, etc. etc.)

  • berkeleykev
  • Much of what is stated in the article is true. Yet, fire retardant requirements are really overstated and unreliable. As, more emphasis should be placed upon home fire prevention and evacuation. These standards can be found in the NFPA’s Life Safety Codes, and other fire prevention resources. This article places emphases on the baby and children’s clothing, bedding, and surroundings rather than the actual causes of death due to a fire. Allow me to explain; when a fire is started and goes beyond the inception stage, the fuel provided has extremely harmful chemicals (painted or varnished wood, furniture, curtains, drywall, etc.) – Substantially more so than the products discussed in the article. The sobering facts are, before the fire even reaches these supposedly fire retardant or non-retardant clothing and bedding, the victim would already be overcome by inhaling harmful gasses and fumes. Just about all causes of death due a fire are inhalation of toxic fumes, not burns from clothing. People falsely think flame retardant clothing and bedding saving children, when the true fact is before the fire even reaches these so called flame retardant clothing and bedding, the toxic gasses, smoke, and heat will be so intense, that it would not matter in the least. I had the privilege of attending the Liberty Mutual Loss control Institute in Wausau, WI. Although it is not open to the public, I highly recommend that homeowners request realistic information regarding home fire prevention from their fire department. Such as, having and checking smoke and CO detectors; checking electrical wiring; home fire drills; and other fire prevention methods.

  • See my article, as I agree with you.

  • The_Sharkey

    Did Big Tobacco write TB117 and force Jerry Brown to sign it?
    Can furniture manufacturers choose to ignore TB117?

    If you don’t like the idea of Big Tobacco lobbying to get flame retardants added to furniture (I don’t either), how do you feel about Big Pharma colluding with the White House to push for the passage of Obama’s health care “reform?”


  • The_Sharkey

    I always wonder why people who are so concerned about man-made poisons/chemicals decide to live in urban areas.

    You could probably avoid all those things much easier if you moved somewhere a little less densely populated.

  • guest

    Uh, okay. Conflate much?

  • guest

    ?? greedy landowner, huh?

  • guest

    >telling someone to move if they don’t like it
    Where have I heard this before?
    We can make our urban centers safe. I believe in human ingenuity.

  • berkeleykev

    ACLPPP is a great resource. They’re also a good place to start when you try to call the authorities to stop someone from spreading lead all over your neighborhood.

  • 7thgenBerkeley

    So you want to come to my town, densely populate it and build giant buildings that we don’t want, create a polluted atmosphere, and then tell me to leave if I don’t like it?

  • berkeleykev

    There are very specific Lead-Safe Work Practice protocols for working on houses older than 1978.

    Among other things, plastic sheets should be out on the ground usually 10′ out from the house. If 10′ is not possible, vertical containment should be erected. They should not use reusable drop clothes (that get shaken out in the street). Also, warning signs should be up when lead painted surfaces are being disturbed. Painted debris should not be left about, it should be contained (in bags or wrapped in plastic) and left in a secure area, or taken away. If you see a pile of demo debris, chances are they’re breaking the law.

    There should be a certified worker on site when the work is being done- complete with photo id. The company doing the work should be listed on the EPA’s certified contractor site: http://cfpub.epa.gov/flpp/searchrrp_firm.htm

    Home lead tests (like the swabs you can buy at the hardware store) are not acceptable as proof of a lack of lead. Testing must be performed by a certified tester. If testing is not done, all painted surfaces in pre- 1978 homes must be assumed to contain lead and Lead-Safe Work Practices must be used. http://www.epa.gov/getleadsafe/

  • The_Sharkey

    Sure, a little. But the situations are pretty similar, so if one is bad they both should be, right?

    The CA government forced furniture manufacturers to put toxic chemicals in our sofas after lobbying from the cigarette industry. The Federal government forced a gutless and generally pretty awful “reform” on us because of lobbying done by Big Pharma and the medical industry.

    But the fact remains that all Big Tobacco could do is lobby. All big Pharma could do is lobby. It was our meddling and spineless politicians who passed the mandate that toxic chemicals be pumped into our sofas, and who passed a health care “reform” bill that didn’t include a single payer option and has done nothing to combat skyrocketing medical costs.

  • The_Sharkey

    First, who says I’m doing any of this?
    Second, lead paint, formaldehyde, flame retardants, etc were all being used in Berkeley well before you were ever born.

    I’m not defending any of those things, just wondering out loud.
    There’s a lot of beautiful land North of here that’s fairly cheap and won’t be as saturated with hundreds of years of man-made pollutants as the Bay Area is.

  • The_Sharkey

    You might want to re-read my comment.
    There’s no part of it where I tell anyone to do anything.

  • kizmet

    Probably because most of of know or suspect that the sea of toxins in the city don’t really seem to be having that much effect on our health, notwithstanding the extreme hypochondria prevalent in in places like Berkeley. Toxic chemicals need to be regulated and businesses that sell them need to be monitored, but the hysteria about chemicals in our environment is just that. Cancer rates are not sky-rocketting. If anything, with only a few exceptions, they are falling, particularly when you adjust for age. The health problems we really suffer from come from boring obvious problems that arise from us getting what we want but that isn’t good for us, like lying around watching TV, smoking cigarettes,over-drinking, eating junk food to excess and isolating ourselves from each other. But dealing with that isn’t nearly as fun as pointing fingers at toxins. That being said, the whole flame retardant fiasco seems like a perfect example of good intentions (and a corrupt political system) gone very bad.

  • kizmet

    I think the biggest danger was to very drunk smokers, and there are a lot of them, and sadly many of them have little kids.

  • Belinda Lyons-Newman

    Thank you! This is very helpful.

  • No matter how clean the house or environment is, it can’t be helped that there are still hazards especially since these hazards cannot be seen by the naked eye. Residents should be careful and conscious all the time and conduct assessments or testing every now and then to rule out the presence of these hazards. – http://www.mutualcornell.com/

  • Iceland_1622

    Polar Bears Face New Toxic Threat: Flame Retardants:

    Already imperiled by melting ice and a brew of toxic chemicals, polar bears throughout the Arctic, particularly in remote dens near the North Pole, face an additional threat as flame retardants originating largely in the United States are building up in their bodies, according to an international team of wildlife scientists. http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jan/09/local/me-polarbears9

  • Belinda

    Thanks Julie!

  • normadean

    I found this blog interesting as I have become a victim of the fire retardants and/or lead in upholstered furniture after going to sleep in my leather recliner with a heat pad on my aching back. Upon awaking, the unfamiliar smell on myself and the chair and surrounding are was so very strong. Unknowing that what had happened to me as I slept was an overdose of the fumes from that chair that is now changing my life. I have become sensitive to the chemicals in the furniture and am having to give my furniture away. I still have my bed, with a covering over the mattress, but the strong smell is sickening and is affecting me adversely