New Study Demonstrates Ways for Reducing Flame Retardant Exposure and Flammability Hazards of Residential Furniture

Research identifies human exposure pathways for flame retardants

flame retardant

A new research report published by UL Chemical Safety and Emory University, Rollins School of Public Health, discusses different techniques for reducing fire hazards of residential furniture while reducing flame retardant exposure. The study, “Human Health in the Built Environment: A Study of Chemical Exposure Risk and Flammability of Upholstered Furniture and Consumer Electronics,” is one of the first studies to scientifically demonstrate pathways for consumer exposure to flame retardants in furniture and to demonstrate how the use of a barrier material in place of flame retardants in furniture can reduce fire hazards.

The “Proceedings of Furniture Flammability and Human Health Summit,” from the third annual Furniture Flammability and Human Health Leadership Summit, is also now available to stakeholders. The proceedings from UL Chemical Safety’s Summit, in partnership with Emory University, share summaries of presentations and technical discussions that were given by stakeholders. The goal of the Summit was to foster the exchange of information for more collaborative discussions, research, innovation, informed policy advancement, and science-based initiatives leading to fire- and chemical-safe products.  

Research from the study, conducted over a three-year period, revealed that dermal transfer by skin contact is a primary way that adults can be exposed to flame retardants in upholstered furniture. The research indicated that children are at the greatest risk of exposure by ingestion, resulting from frequent hand-to-mouth contact with settled dust. The research also measured the impact of different fire prevention technologies on the flammability of chairs, and the potential of flame retardant exposure for first responders.

The study comes at a time when many public health professionals and scientists have grown increasingly concerned with the human exposure and health hazards of some chemical flame retardants. These chemicals are often added for fire protection in resilient foams of commercial and residential furniture and in other materials of consumer products.

According to P. Barry Ryan, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, “Understanding flame retardant exposure pathways and exposure levels is very important as we begin to develop strategies for reducing exposure, especially for children.”

By studying human chemical exposure to flame retardants, researchers derived scientific data to support advancing the fire and chemical safety of furniture, including the use of a barrier material in upholstered furniture products between the resilient foam and cover fabric and the reduction of flame retardants.

“With the public’s increasing concern about chemicals in our everyday products and the consumer expectation for safer products, our research has generated important data to help us better understand how we can reduce exposure to flame retardants while reducing fire hazards as well, said Dr. Marilyn Black, vice president and senior technical advisor at UL. “We hope the scientific insights gleaned from the study can lead to more chemical- and fire-safe products in the market.”

Moreover, to reduce exposure to flame retardants and other indoor contaminants, Dr. Black recommends that consumers:

  • Dust all internal surfaces frequently with a disposable wet cloth
  • Vacuum floors, surfaces and furniture frequently with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum
  • Wash hands frequently to avoid hand-to-mouth transfer, especially before eating
  • Wash furry indoor pets frequently
  • Provide regular fresh air ventilation
  • Repair any furniture tears that expose inside materials.

The research was funded by a grant to Dr. Ryan from Underwriters Laboratories Inc.

About UL UL fosters safe living and working conditions for people everywhere through the application of science to solve safety, security and sustainability challenges. UL empowers trust by enabling the safe adoption of innovative new products and technologies. Everyone at UL shares a passion to make the world a safer place. UL Chemical Safety, as part of our nonprofit organization, contributes to the protection of human health and wellbeing by conducting scientific research, sharing knowledge, and supporting the development of standards and processes for minimizing chemical pollution exposure. To learn more about additional research and initiatives of UL’s nonprofit organization, visit www.ul.org.