How I banned flame retardants from our playroom – Part I

Ever feel like you’re the only sane person in a world of crazy people? Well I got the chance to feel the opposite, over the past 4 months or so, as I sought to rid our playroom of flame retardants.

The journey started after I read Are You Safe on That Sofa? by Nicholas Kristof. I’d long been aware of flame retardants – we researched and reported on them in The Other Baby Book. But other detox activities had taken precedence – finding a nontoxic mattress for us, then for Dalia, getting rid first of BPA, then of kitchen plastic altogether (well, almost), non-stick pans, processed foods, and body-care products with triclosan, phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde derivatives and other nasties. So we’d let this one wait awhile.

Truly, it gets to the point where a mom can start to feel a bit nuts. I mean, the FDA is approving these things, right? Well, no, not really. It just doesn’t disapprove of them – it leaves the safety testing up to the companies that are profiting from them. And it’s like in the court of law – our products are innocent until proven guilty – which may be nice for an innocent man, but not for all the innocent families who are so excited about furnishing their home with the very best furniture, body care products and sippy cups, having no idea about what chemicals are lurking within them.

So anyway, Kristof’s piece served as a wake-up call. Our family spends most of our waking hours in the playroom – when we’re home, that is. So the fact that there was a 30-year old synthetic carpet and a 10-year old sectional couch in it were concerning.

Having been through several of my purging cycles before, Misha was a good sport when I listed our sectional on Craigslist and began calling furniture stores to find a non-toxic couch. We got rid of the couch quickly, thanks to an aggressive price. I have to admit feeling bad about selling our couch to another family given that we were just moving those flame retardants to another home. But, as I soon learned, there really aren’t any clear and cheap alternatives.

Due to California laws (which are hopefully about to change!), most furniture companies pump about 2 pounds of flame retardants into each couch. I won’t go too deeply into the reasoning – you can get that in the article above – but it arose thanks to the cigarette companies ditching responsibility for starting most house fires, and enlisting an eager partner – the chemical company. Not only are flame retardants unnecessary toxic travelers in our furniture, they’ve also been shown to have the opposite of the desired effect, making fires deadlier.

I found several beautiful, healthy couches thanks to this blog post, but I just wasn’t able to stomach a $6500+ price tag on a sectional destined to be destroyed by dogs and small children. I called some local furniture stores, like Jordan’s and Boston Interiors, and began to get the sense I was living on another planet. “If I’m not mistaken,” said the sales rep at Jordan’s, “flame retardants are in furniture to protect our health and safety.” I couldn’t resist. “Actually,” I said, “you are.”

Long story short, no one had any idea what I was talking about, and those mainstream companies who made affordable “eco” products still used flame retardants with questionable ingredients like boric acid. I finally ended up posting my project through an innovative company co-founded by a friend called Custommade.com. There I placed one failed bid for a non-toxic sectional couch (actually, EcoSelect Furniture was willing to make one, but with a soy-polyfoam blend that isn’t quite nontoxic according to this researcher). So we custom-ordered two daybeds with all nontoxic materials (and our talented carpenter now plans to focus on nontoxic products to safeguard her health and that of her clients), bought two organic futon mattresses (we chose a blend of cotton and wool to add a little bounce), and are busy furnishing it moroccan-style with tons of colorful throw pillows.

Whew! All this time and I haven’t yet discussed our search for a flame-retardant free carpet. I’ll follow up to share our research in part II of this article. Leave a comment if you find these topics helpful – I can also detail our greening projects in the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Here’s to a healthier future for all of our children!

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2 thoughts on “How I banned flame retardants from our playroom – Part I”

  1. Miriam, I am so incredibly glad you wrote about this topic. It’s something that I think about pretty often and worry about the 20+ year old couch in our living room. Whenever my daughter bounces on it, rubs her face on it, or in general, breathes the air in our airtight apartment, I think about it. And you’re right, it is totally counter-culture to worry about what’s in your sofa because the government SHOULD be looking out for the consumer. Maybe someday….

    Thank you for including links to your carpenter and for the organic futon mattresses. What type of pillows are you doing? Will you add any sort of waterproof pad to the futon mattresses? It is my goal to replace our couch with a daybed this year! I feel inspired now to do so. 🙂

    Looking forward to Part II……..

  2. This recalls our very own struggle to find a non-toxic bed and mattress! I felt like I was chasing my tail, and often went to bed at night with a fierce headache for all of the confusing, contradicting, and patently false info out there.

    When we became pregnant, I knew we’d have our little one in our bed at least some of the time (which, in actuality, evolved to ALL of the time, haha), so we set out to find a king-size bedframe and organic/eco-friendly/non-toxic mattress. We found so much greenwashing out there. Just like with food labels, “natural” and “sustainable” and “green” are not regulated terms, and they can be so misleading! It was nearly impossible to find a bedframe that wasn’t made with MDF and formaldehyde. Eventually we found a wool/organic cotton/latex core mattress, but it is monstrously heavy and it was more expensive than we were initially comfortable spending. I’m glad we got it before I became a SAHM, because I don’t think we would be able to comfortably afford it. Yikes. Anyway, I’m *still* not sure that we have the most non-toxic sleeping set-up, even though we tried so very hard.

    Also looking forward to your next post on this subject!

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