Photography by: Gary Taxali
Being a couch potato is dangerous in more ways than one: Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are a class of toxic chemicals used to make a wide range of common household products, including foam-padded furniture, computers, television screens and carpet padding, flame-resistant. EWG studies have found these chemicals in the dust of every home and in the body of every participant tested, with levels in babies and toddlers three times higher than that of their mothers. “Children often have higher exposure levels than adults because they’re frequently putting their hands in their mouths,” notes Schettler. Because of health concerns including brain and nerve damage, two forms of PBDEs known as penta and octa are no longer made in the United States. However, these chemicals are still found in furniture and foam items manufactured before a 2005 phase-out. And although several U.S. states and major manufacturers have agreed to eliminate various flame retardants in their products, they continue to be widely used and largely unregulated. “There’s also an issue with furniture made out of pressed board or particle board, which is often held together with formaldehyde-based glue,” Schettler notes. “This can be an important source of formaldehyde releases, which are known to be carcinogenic as well as irritating to the respiratory tract, among other things.”
Smart solutions Your best bet is to use furniture with lower levels of PBDEs and, because dust inhalation is an important source of exposure, clean your home as often as possible, says Schettler. “Vacuums with HEPA filters are best because they don’t just re-discharge airborne chemicals back into the environment,” Schettler notes. The latest studies from former NASA research scientist Bill Wolverton, Ph.D., author of Plants: Why You Can’t Live Without Them (Roli Books), show that the lady palm, rubber plant, peace lily, English ivy and golden pothos are among the best plants for removal of common household toxins. Wolverton recommends one or two medium-size (2- to 3-foot) plants per 100 square feet of floor space to help clean the air in an average home or office. Because the chemicals that are being used in place of PBDEs in foam have not been fully tested for their health effects, seek out furniture made from less flammable materials like leather, wool or cotton—replacing older pieces in your home that contain synthetic foam if you can afford to do so. (“Although older pieces may have off-gassed chemicals over time, materials like foam may have deteriorated, which means the flame retardants or other components will get into the indoor environment,” Schettler notes.) Just know that newer products also may be treated with toxic flame retardants, so find out which ones, if any, were used before purchase. If you can’t afford to replace items, cover older furniture with sturdy cloth and vacuum and/or wet mop around them frequently.