Are your dust bunnies toxic?
The answer is most likely “yes”, unless you have carefully sought out and purchased chemical-free furniture, clothing, curtains and appliances.
This story begins in the 1970’s when a California Bulletin (TB117) outlined certain standards for flame resistance that would be required for all furniture. This bulletin resulted in the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in all foam furniture across US and Canada and the idea of flame resistant furniture spread like a wild fire — pardon the pun. Soon manufacturers were using these chemicals in children’s clothing, car seats, airplanes, textiles and the plastic components of our computers, TV’s, and appliances.
What’s the concern?
The problem is not so much in the fact that BFRs are found in our furniture, fabrics, and appliances, but rather that they don’t stay there. Brominated fire retardants leach into the surrounding environment where they persist for many years. BFRs have been found in the air, water, wild and farmed fish, human blood, and breast milk.
The Great Lakes are one of the most BFR-contaminated bodies of water, with Lake Michigan the worst. BFR’s have also been found within the soil and house dust — which means that your dust bunnies are toxic.
BFR’s persist and bio-accumulate in both the external environment and in our bodies. Most BFR’s are fat soluble, and Animals (including humans) tuck the BFR’s away in their fat. This is likely the reason these chemicals are found in higher concentrations in breast tissue and breast milk (which contains a lot of fat).
The body burden of BFRs in infants is much greater than in adults, likely because their less-developed detoxification systems are less able to excrete them. Infants and toddlers hang out on the floor, where the dust bunnies are, and they like to put anything and everything into their mouths. And if that’s not enough, all tested breast milk samples were found to contain some levels of BFRs.
Once in the body, the BFRs can interfere with the brain and nervous system function, reproduction, thyroid hormone activity and infant growth and development. BFR’s also look a lot like estrogen and have been implicated in breast and other cancers.
What’s the good news?
Policies are changing here and around the world. In Europe, certain brominated fire retardants have been banned or restricted and in North America, as of 2015 furniture may be made to meet the standard without containing these harmful chemicals, however it takes some work to seek out the safer furniture. Tight fitting cotton sleepwear for children can be sold in Canada, it just needs to contain a label warning you that it is not treated with flame retardants.
So, the good news is that these products are allowed and in theory are available. The reality however is that manufacturers are unlikely to create different products for different regions. Manufacturers want to create one sofa that can be sold anywhere, and this means that they will create products to meet the standards of the strictest region. So to this day, the majority of the furniture, drapes, children’s sleepwear and electronics sold in Canada still contain BFRs.
What can you do?
Start by sweeping up the dust bunnies, use a wet mop as well. Having less dust, means that you’ve got less contact with the BFRs. Where you can choose hardwood instead of carpet, as carpets love to hold on tight to dust. If you do have carpets make sure to vacuum them often. Wash your hands before eating so that you aren’t ingesting the BFRs that you miss with your vacuum and mop.
Choose tight-fitting cotton or wool sleepwear that doesn’t contain BFRs (Note that the clothing
requirements only apply to children’s sleepwear).
Read labels! If you are in the market for new sofa or mattress, make “BFR-free” a priority for your purchase. You won’t exactly find BFR-free written on tags, but keep in mind that any foam containing furniture made before 2015 will meet the TB117 Bulletin requirements, meaning it will contain BFRs. So while I love to reduce, re-use and recycle, perhaps Kijiji isn’t the best place to shop for a sofa. When purchasing new, check to see what the label says about how the product meets fire retardant standards. Ask store owners and manufacturers for healthier furniture options.
Try spending some time in the sauna! BFRs are difficult to excrete once they are in your body and current research suggests that the best way to clear them is through sweat.
Consume anti-oxidants either as supplements like N-acetylcysteine, or by consuming a variety of dietary fruits and vegetables. These essential nutrients may not help you clear the BFRs out of your body but they can help to repair the damage that the BFRs cause.
Finally, consider writing letters to your local or national governments expressing your concerns about the health implications that come with such widespread use of chemicals. Tell them you want better options!
California Bulletin TB117 FAQ Sheet
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