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.
Babyluxe
Elka Home
Cisco Home
European Sleepworks
Viesso
Savyrest

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.

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

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