Three years ago, our Managing Director Jenny Rottmann received test results from a study she had agreed to participate in, to find out whether her Macy’s couch contained flame retardants. Just days before she was about to give birth to her first child, she learned that her couch contained a toxic chemical mixture called Firemaster 550. As she told the Bangor Daily News at the time, she was furious, but also felt helpless – her couch was new, buying another would be an expensive investment right before having a child, and it was impossible to tell which sofa brands contained the chemical and which did not.
Fast forward three years to October 21st 2015, when we were busy telling everyone in our Southern Maine network to come join us at Macy’s the next morning. (No, this was not a big group shopping expedition.)
We were planning to gather at the South Portland Macy’s with Jenny and her newest member of the family, 7 month old Iris, to ask them to stop selling furniture with toxic flame retardant chemicals, at the same time as dozens of activists around the country would be visiting their local Macy’s stores to deliver the same message.
But just as we were finishing our preparations for the next day’s event, we got the news from our colleagues at the Mind the Store Campaign: Macy’s promised to require all its furniture suppliers to be flame retardant-free, effective immediately.
Macy’s is huge. It’s the 10th largest retailer of furniture in the US. It sells over a billion dollars worth of furniture in a year. So when a retailer like Macy’s tells its suppliers worldwide that they have to provide flame retardant free furniture, it makes a difference. Macy’s is the latest in a slough of big retailers to make that transition, including Ikea, La-Z-Boy, and Ashley Furniture. Step by step, big box store by big box store, we’re getting flame retardant chemicals out of the marketplace.
Why does this matter?
Flame retardant chemicals are no joke – they’re found in the bodies of almost all humans, even in breast milk. That’s a scary fact because these chemicals are highly toxic – strong science demonstrates links to neurodevelopment problems, reproductive health issues, and cancer. Firefighters who are already bravely risking their lives every day to help people, are getting many types of cancer at rates that are much higher than the general population. Many flame retardants create byproducts like dioxins and furans when they burn, that envelop firefighters in a toxic soup while fighting a fire.
And the worst part about flame retardants is that they are totally ineffective at preventing fires in the first place. The chemical industry led a deceptive campaign in the 1970s to convince the public that chemicals in furniture were necessary to slow down flames – but years of data by safety experts show that there’s nothing to back up the industry’s claims. Flame retardant chemicals are added in the manufacturing process of polyurethane foam which is used as the cushioning in sofas or chairs. But by the time a flame has devoured the outer fabric on a piece of furniture, its too large to be stopped by chemicals in the foam. The chemicals just make the fire more toxic.
There’s still work to do to kick flame retardants out the door once and for all. But moms like Jenny are closer to getting peace of mind that the furniture they bring home won’t be toxic for their families. Right now we should celebrate one more victory that gets us closer to that goal.