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Avoiding toxic chemicals in your couch, mattress

Chemical flame retardants can be harmful to children


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Richard Levine sorts and processes organic cotton to be used in futons at the Cotton Cloud Futons factory warehouse in Northwest Portland. Back in 1981, 17-year-old Terri Treat sewed a mattress with an antiquated treadle sewing machine found at a yard sale, painstakingly piecing together the cotton batting and wool overlay. In a black-and-white picture from that era, she sits cross-legged on the ground at Portland’s Saturday Market, one of her early mattresses on hopeful display.

That sewing machine is now on view at the cavernous Northwest Portland warehouse where Treat's staff makes all-natural futon mattresses, pillows, comforters and couch cushions. She uses wool sourced from Oregon and cotton that's turned into batting on site, selling to retail and wholesale customers around the country.

The market for such products has steadily expanded, especially with increased publicity about potential health hazards posed by harsh chemical flame retardants commonly found in upholstered furniture and mattresses.

Thanks to a 1970s-era ruling from an obscure California government agency, the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, the foam in upholstered furniture sold all over the country must be able to withstand exposure to a small flame for 12 seconds without igniting. To comply, couches, armchairs and ottomans are doused with large quantities of chemically produced flame retardants.

Those toxins migrate all over our homes, settling in the dust on mantels and in fine layers on the floor. They are often encountered and sometimes ingested by young children, who are most vulnerable to the potential health effects.

Researchers at Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere have found that household chemicals in your bloodstream can be linked to antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, low birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, hyperthyroidism and unstable male hormone levels.

By now, you might be thinking about packing it all in for a life in the wilds of Alaska, far from the reach of household chemicals. Think again.

Trace levels of common household toxins have been found even in polar bears living in the tundra, says Jen Coleman, Oregon Environmental Council outreach director.

"It's important to acknowledge that there is no way to get off the grid when it comes to chemicals," Coleman says. "Just take control of what you can in a way that fits your lifestyle, sanity and budget."

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Allen Matthews lays back on a futon bed at Cotton Cloud Futon's retail store on Northeast Broadway. What to do?

Customers at Treat’s Portland store, Cotton Cloud Futons, frequently ask her advice on avoiding toxic flame retardants. She encourages them to visit her warehouse to review choices for the cores of their mattresses and furniture.

Customers can choose organic latex to form the core of their purchase, which comes from rubber trees, as opposed to foam, which is a petroleum byproduct. The stuffing is often cotton-wrapped in wool. Wool is a natural flame repellent, Treat says, so there's no need for fire retardant.

Pieces range from $400 to about $2,000.

For those who don’t want to go the futon route, replacing an old sofa with one free of flame retardant can get expensive.

An "Eli" model sofa from Ecobalanza, a Seattle-based furniture manufacturer that uses natural latex foam cushions, starts at about $3,775, plus shipping charges. That’s a lot more than the local Ikea option, but furniture can be an investment that will last a lifetime.

You can consider looking in vintage stores that dot the Portland area. Mid-century modern is very chic now, and Mad Men-era couches date to pre-1975, before the California regulations were put into place.

New regulations?

Consumers can make healthier choices, says environmental consultant Renee Hackenmiller Paradis, but real and sustained change needs to come from the state and federal level.

"You are stuck in this situation as a consumer because you don't know exactly what is in a product, and there is no recourse for you as an individual to make sure that your family is not exposed to something that is important to you," she says.

The Oregon Legislature has had some notable anti-toxins successes, says state Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, a Portland Democrat who has long been her chamber's go-to person for environmental issues. In 2005, the Legislature banned the use of flame retardants penta-BDE and octa-BDE, commonly used in mattresses and electronics. Four years later, another flame retardant, deca-BDE, was added to that list.

But there have also been setbacks, like the Legislature's repeated failure to ban the chemical compound BPA from children's sippy cups and baby bottles, an action rendered moot in 2012 when the FDA instituted a federal ban on BPA in those products.

Ideally, Dingfelder says, toxins policy would be accomplished at the federal level, instead of done piecemeal by states. Federal policy changes often come at a glacial rate, though, and face deep-pocketed opposition by foes like the American Chemistry Council.

"When the states act,” Dingfelder says, “it can work as a catalyst."

2013 bills

One of Dingfelder's top environmental priorities of the 2013 Oregon legislative session will be passage of a toxic disclosures for healthy kids bill, patterned after Washington and Maine laws.

Hackenmiller-Paradis says the law would:

•Establish a list of high-priority chemicals that are a concern for children's health and found in products marketed to kids, like toys and jewelry.

•Require manufacturers to disclose those chemicals used in their products.

•Provide incentives for manufacturers to look at supply chains and reduce or eliminate toxins in their products (and possible penalties for those that do not comply.)

The proposed legislation is sure to meet opposition from industry and business groups. Compliance could cost manufacturing jobs, and there's a strong argument that such policy is best made at the federal level.

Dingfelder is ready for a fight, recalling the chemical industry lobbyists who showed up in Salem in 2009 when she sought to ban octa-BDE. They mailed postcards to parents in targeted districts, suggesting their children's mattresses would erupt in flame, and it would be lawmakers' fault.

"But at what point do you say, we need to protect the public health of the citizens of our state?" Dingfelder asks.