How I banned flame retardants from our playroom – Part II

Our new nontoxic daybed and wool carpet

Did you know that toddlers have higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies than adults? One of the reasons is that toddlers are busy crawling on chemical-laden carpets and couches, mouthing items that have fallen on the floor and picked up the dust that gets released as carpets and furniture are used.

I felt there was really no point getting rid of our well-loved sectional if we weren’t also going to take out the synthetic carpet, which no doubt was also heavy with flame retardants. For those of you in the market, synthetic materials like nylon are destined to be sprayed with flame retardants (I’ll use the abbreviation FR from here on out) in compliance with CA law, because they are not flame retardant by nature. This applies not only to the carpet itself, but to the carpet padding as well.

I’m not a huge fan of carpets aesthetically, but I have found them to be very baby-and toddler-friendly, and I’d gotten used to the soft cushion for our playgroup attendees. I did consider having a bamboo, or better yet, cork, floor installed, then putting an area rug over that. Cork isn’t good for high-sun areas like our playroom and the bamboo option seemed to be just as pricey and much less soft. So we decided to go with the carpet.

I went on a search for carpets that didn’t have FRs in them, and soon discovered that the fail-safe way to get one was to order a wool rug, which is naturally flame retardant and therefore didn’t need to be pumped with chemicals. They also tended to be more expensive than the synthetic, stain resistant (thanks to even more chemicals) alternatives.

We scoured local stores, including one that considers itself to be eco-friendly thanks to its carpet recycling initiative. While I applaud recycling, I’m also concerned that recycling carpets with chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, hyperactivity and autism-like symptoms isn’t the most healthy practice.

Finally we found a well-priced remnant (read: leftover roll that’s been marked as clearance) from a high-end local store that advertises regularly on NPR. I was working with one of their salespeople, not one of the family members who owns the store. He repeatedly expressed ignorance about the use of FRs, and, getting sick of my broken record request for documentation that the carpet and pad contained no FRs, he said, “Look, I’ve worked with many families who order our standard rug pad and no one complains of wheezing or coughing or anything.”

If one good thing has come out of my repeated pestering of salespeople, I hope it’s that I had the opportunity to educate them. But it concerns me that I seem to be the only one out there doing this. Not that I want everyone else to rip up their carpets and have new couches made – limited budgets and resources make my choices neither wallet nor eco-friendly. But what is the alternative? Knowingly expose my children and their friends to unthinkable conditions? I couldn’t justify it.

After researching several carpet padding options, including one that’s made from recycled furniture and carpet scraps (yup, those original products contained flame retardants), we finally realized that a pure wool carpet pad was the only way to go. And the most expensive. So we ate the cost – about $3/square foot each for the carpet and the carpet padding.

I have to say we were a bit shocked when our carpet – installed with nails only and claimed to contain only non-toxic, water-based glues in its binding –  let off a new carpet smell, much like the new car smell that indicates the presence of phthalates, other harmful chemicals I avoid like the plague. But we sighed, kept our little one out of the room, and left the windows open for a few days. It’s getting much better.

Picking a carpet felt like a double-blind experiment where neither I nor the salespeople could be sure of exactly what we were getting. But we did our best and we’ll hope for the best. Here’s to a healthier future for all our children!

What steps have you made to eliminate flame retardants in your home? How have salespeople reacted to your requests?

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!