Chemical Flame Retardants May Not Be as Safe in a Fire as You Think

Most modern furniture, upholstery, and mattresses are made from petroleum based products. Because petroleum is highly flammable, these furnishings are doused in chemical flame retardants to slow the spread of a fire.

There are also major health concerns with these chemicals. They off-gas as you sit or sleep on them, and they’re linked to cancers, reproductive issues, allergies, liver issues, and other health risks.

legacy vs modern room flammability

You might think the risk of exposure to these chemicals is worth it if it keeps your or your child safe in the event of a fire. But you might be wrong.

While the chemical fire retardants keep most furnishings from bursting immediately into flames like gasoline… it’s still a highly flammable situation.

Furnishings are made from petroleum because it’s cheaper

Historically home furnishings like sofas, curtains, rugs, and mattresses were made with natural materials like wood, cotton, and wool. These are called legacy furnishings.

Innovations in manufacturing made it cheaper and faster to mass produce these products.

“Natural fibers aren’t nearly as flammable, but petroleum is much cheaper,” explains environmental engineer Barry Cik. “Companies started adding petroleum to almost everything.”

Because petroleum is so commonly used in everyday furnishings and textiles, the United States introduced flame retardants and flammability standards in the 1970s to make sure that these products were safe in the case of a fire.

Petroleum is linked to an increase in serious fires and fire deaths

Natural materials burn at a slower lower rate than petroleum-based materials and with lower heat release.

Conventional mattresses are actually made of mostly petroleum-based materials. Then they are sprayed with flame retardant chemicals to help prevent the combustible foam from reacting how petroleum reacts with fire.

If you don’t get why a mattress made of gasoline is bad, there’s a pretty compelling video below.

Flexible polyurethane foam has been a popular material in mattresses thanks to its affordability, as well as light weight and resilient properties.

However, the higher flammability of polyurethane foam used in furnishings has been associated with an increase in serious fires as well as fire deaths.

In the below video, fire fighters created two identical rooms. One contained furniture made with natural materials, and the other contained furniture made with synthetic materials.

See how dramatically fire spreads in a room with modern furnishings compared to furnishings from decades past.

Escape times and the toxicity of the fumes can be drastically different for something as simple as materials, and may ultimately make the difference between life and death.

The dangers of chemical flame retardants

Despite assurance claims made by the chemical industry, many of these flame retardants are unnecessary, harmful to health, and don’t work well. 

Some studies link flame retardants to neurological impairments, hormone disruption, decreased fertility, and cancer. If humans are exposed to these toxic chemicals over time, they can bioaccumulate, which could potentially cause certain chronic health problems. Mothers have even been known to pass flame retardant chemicals to their babies through breastfeeding.

This is why the chief cause of death for firefighters isn’t actually fires, but chemical exposure during the line of duty, which often leads to terminal cancer.

How to find safer options

Very few people can replace all of the textiles in their home at once. So, don’t panic and try to throw everything out.

Make your investment count by starting with where you and your family spend the most time. In most cases that means your bed.

Chemical flame retardant free mattresses

A third of our lives are spent asleep, so a mattress made from natural materials is extremely worthwhile. And there are some brands that make them competitively priced with those made from cheaper petroleum-based materials.

naturepedic flame retardant free mattress

Brands like Naturepedic and Obasan use all natural materials that are naturally fire resistant.

Naturepedic goes beyond GOTS certification and has strict standards to provide only the safest mattresses. Not only are their individual materials certified, but the finished mattress is certified as well.

If you have a baby or young child, transition their mattresses first. Their small bodies and developing brains are more vulnerable to toxins. And smaller mattresses are pretty affordable.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to choosing a nontoxic crib mattress with five safe brands to choose from.

And here’s a review of our favorite organic mattress for kids.

Flame retardant free sofas

The living room is another area where your family likely spends a lot of time. A sofa (whether fabric or leather) can off-gas chemicals for several years.

flame retardant free sofa

Burrow offers stylish, modern, versatile sofas, chairs, and sectionals that are all CertiPUR-US certified to be free of flame retardants, ozone depleters, formaldehyde, heavy metals, and other dangerous chemicals.

Another safe furniture brand is Medley. They offer several cotton and linen upholstery fabrics, in addition to certified organic textiles. All are certified by GREENGUARD Gold, OEKO-TEX 100, or GOTS.

Safer play couch for kids

Kids love a nugget style play couch for comfort, versatility, and fun. The downside is that many of these are made from polyurethane and off-gas those harmful VOCs for years.

flame retardant free nugget couch for kids

This play couch from Brentwood Home is Certi-PUR certified, GREENGUARD Gold certified, and also “Formaldehyde Free by UL” certified. The pieces are made from 20% BioFoam® (a type of polyurethane foam made from corn, sunflower, castor oil beans, and soybeans instead of petroleum). The outer cover is made from 63.5% polyester, 29% from recycled plastic water bottles, and 7.5% nylon. And it contains no chemical flame retardants or PFAS fabric treatments.

Flame retardant free car seats

Car seats are another area where flame retardants can be a problem. When the car gets hot, a car seat is more likely to release the toxic chemicals.

Here’s our comprehensive guide to safe, flame-retardant free car seats. Transitioning to a car seat that’s not coated with fire retardants helped one of our readers figure out what was causing their daughter’s mystery rash.

My budget non-toxic mattress hack

This shortcut will help keep you from breathing offgassed chemicals from a mattress that has been sprayed with flame retardants. It doesn’t necessarily help the flammability issue.

Get an organic mattress topper to put a safe and extremely comfortable layer between you and the mattress. The one from Happsy is affordable and comfy.

If you already have a soft or pillow top mattress and don’t need any more cushiony layers, opt for an organic cotton mattress protector pad.

Either or both of these hacks can add at least one safer layer between you and a less than pure mattress. If or when you are able to upgrade to an organic mattress, these accessories can carry over easily. Our discount code Greenchild15 works on Naturepedic accessories too.

More resources for reducing your family’s chemical exposure

These issues are worth knowing about. But please don’t worry yourself unnecessarily. Stress can be just as hard on the body as some toxic exposure.

Do what you can without getting overwhelmed. Here are some other tips for keeping your family safe. Many of them are cheaper and involve using or buying fewer items.

How to Reduce Your Chemical Body Burden
Safe Sunscreen for Babies and Kids
Dry Skin Brushing for Lymphatic Health
How to Avoid PFAS in Tea Bags
How to Avoid Microplastics in Tea
Chromium 6 in Tap Water

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