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Harmful Chemicals in Vinyl Floors, Furniture

Researchers say vinyl flooring and sofas with flame retardants can present a health risk to children.

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Experts say linoleum is a safer alternative than vinyl flooring. Getty Images

When considering the dangers some chemicals can present to children’s health, we’re usually concerned with pesticides and air pollution.

But what do we do when the danger is part of our homes?

A recent study found that certain semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) in furniture and flooring can present a health risk to children.

Researchers say that children in homes with sofas containing flame-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the cushions had a sixfold higher concentration of this substance in their blood.

Exposure to PBDEs has been associated with:

  • neurodevelopmental delays
  • obesity
  • endocrine and thyroid disruption
  • cancer

“The goal of our study was to understand the role that specific products or building materials have in children’s exposure to chemicals that are potentially hazardous or toxic,” Heather Stapleton, PhD, deputy director of the Duke Superfund Research Center and lead study author, told Healthline.

The recent study also looked at 18 children who lived in public assistance homes where all of the flooring was vinyl. The children all showed phthalate metabolite levels in their urine that were 15 times higher than children living in homes without any vinyl flooring, researchers reported.

“Phthalate exposure in children has been linked with increased airway inflammation and raises concerns about the impact of these exposures on children with asthma,” Dr. Stapleton said.

A U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission (USCSPC) memo states that benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) has been linked to asthma, eczema, multiple myeloma, and reproductive disorders.

The findings were presented February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

According to a 2012 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, flame retardants added to furniture foam don’t work. The cover fabric will burn whether the foam contains flame retardants or not.

“Flame retardants do not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time — normal furniture and TB117-compliant furniture burn similarly,” the researchers wrote.

The flame retardants identified include:

  • Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011
  • Pentabrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) “globally banned due to toxicity and environmental persistence”
  • Firemaster 550, linked with obesity and anxiety in one animal study

“It’s unknown what will happen to any individual child, but animal studies with higher amounts of PBDE than are seen in humans have shown some neurobehavioral effects (decreased cognition and memory), decreased thyroid function, and changes in reproductive hormones and sperm counts,” Jennifer Lowry, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, told Healthline.

“It’s impossible to say what will happen to any individual child, but children with higher exposures, as a population, may have some of these effects,” she said.

Even if you own furniture without a TB117 tag, you may still be exposed. Researchers found that 60 percent of samples that didn’t have a TB117 label still had detectable levels of flame retardants present in the foam.

PBDE exposure is a problem unique to North America.

California enacted “Technical Bulletin 117” in 1975. It was a law that required foam-filled furniture to withstand 12 seconds of exposure to an open flame without catching fire.

Any concerns over the chemicals’ effects were overshadowed by concerns over the flammability of furniture.

In addition, since making furniture only for sale in California is prohibitively expensive, it encouraged manufacturers to use flame retardants in every piece made for the U.S. market.

However, by September 2017, the USCSPC had published a notice in the journal Federal Register warning that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that flame retardants are a serious public health issue.

A recent MarketWatch article reports that the global vinyl flooring market is projected to grow 13 percent annually. It’s a popular option for people who want a durable, waterproof floor covering.

And it’s not just the poor or middle class who are exposed. There’s a growing market for expensive luxury vinyl flooring as well.

Besides BBP, vinyl flooring also contains dioxins, which are known to be carcinogenic.

But there’s an alternative.

Linoleum is considered a “green” option to vinyl flooring.

It’s composed of linseed oil, pine resin, wood and cork flour, limestone, and coloring pressed together onto a backing of jute. When properly cared for, it can last for up to 40 years.

The flooring industry has come a long way in addressing the potential dangers of vinyl flooring by offering phthalate-free vinyl flooring — which, while more expensive, won’t expose your family to these chemicals.

“The key is to decrease the use of chemicals and to use products in the way that they were intended to be used,” Dr. Lowry said. “These chemicals aren’t just specific to household items. The same chemicals can also be found in our foods.”

“Removing sources of exposure is always the best solution, but that’s not always economically feasible,” Stapleton said.

“Washing hands before eating, increasing ventilation in the home, and minimizing house dust are approaches that can reduce exposure,” she explained.

Researchers have found that children living in homes with vinyl flooring and sofas treated with fire retardant chemicals show increased levels of certain toxic chemicals.

These chemicals have been associated with serious health issues, including respiratory problems, neurological issues, skin irritation, and cancer.

Flame retardants have been included in furniture sold in the United States since 1975. But studies have shown most of the chemicals aren’t safe, and a 2012 study found they aren’t even effective at preventing furniture from catching fire.

Linoleum flooring is a safer alternative to vinyl flooring, and manufacturers have started offering phthalate-free flooring that doesn’t contain the potentially dangerous chemicals identified by the study.

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