Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Cancer-Linked Chemicals Found In Some Furniture Remain A Health Risk, Team 10 reveals

Millions of homes have couches, baby chairs and other furniture that most likely contain toxic chemicals, according to researchers. The chemicals are used in flame retardants used to treat furniture, and many people believe the chemicals cause cancer -- especially when burned in fires.

Photo credit: Channel 10 News

Duke University and the University of California at Berkley shows one-third of all couches contain chemicals in the form of flame retardants.

A recent study conducted by Duke University and the University of California at Berkley shows one-third of all couches contain chemicals in the form of flame retardants. Forty-one percent of the 102 couches researchers tested had foam with chlorinated Tris, classified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen.

The report shows that 17 percent of the couches tested contained the chemical pentaBDE, which is banned worldwide, but still widely used to treat couches in the years leading up to the ban. When the chemicals burn in house fires, some firefighters believe the toxic smoke poses a health hazard for firefighters and the neighbors who live near a burning home.

San Diego firefighters set a mock living room on fire to show Team 10 how much smoke is produced in a typical blaze. In just minutes, the fire goes from a small flame to billowing smoke, so thick Team 10 cameras had to move back from the blaze.

"Everything you saw coming out in the dark smoke, that is where you are going to see the chemicals," said San Diego Fire Marshall Doug Perry.

Research by Duke University and U.C. Berkley revealed that those chemicals come from flame retardant sprayed on all furniture in California since 1975. The study showed the chemicals are linked to hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity, in addition to cancer. "We've got a major toxic problem we are encountering," said former firefighter Tony Stefani.

Stefani was captain of his rescue squad in San Francisco until he found out he had cancer. Stefani’s said his type of cancer is one that his doctors told him mostly appears in people who work in the chemical industry. He remembers a conversation with his doctor about his diagnoses.

"I told him I was a fireman and he looked at me and smiled and said, 'You might not realize it, but you do work in the chemical industry when you extinguish these fires," Stefani recalled.

The chemical industry says there is no proof flame retardants cause any problems. In fact, the industry maintains retardants slow down burn time and save lives. Stefani openly disagrees, and even testified in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing called, "Oversight of EPA Authorities and Actions to Control Toxic Chemicals."

After years of pressure from cancer patients like Stefani and other environmental groups, California Gov. Jerry Brown called for an overhaul of Technical Bulletin 117. TB 117 requires the foam in furniture to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds.It's the reason manufacturers pump pounds of chemicals in upholstery foam.

The chemicals stop the foam from quickly catching on fire, but critics say hardly any fires start that way. Seven months after the governor’s overhaul proposal, there is an issue with getting the regulations changed.Team 10 checks the status and gets answers on where this change stands, today on 10News at 5:00.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.