Foam chemical leaves disturbing realization

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2010

My ties to Oregon go beyond the fact I used to live there. I check the news, the weather (often while cringing) and keep tabs on issues that, in my opinion, matter.

Juneau Empire
Juneau Empire

On the topic of health - which admittedly is an outdoors-related stretch - I ran across the following piece of interesting, and somewhat disturbing, information.

Apparently, many stuffed furniture items, crib mats, nursing pillows and toys are filled with not just the plush foam and filling meant to enhance the squishiness for which they're coveted. Many also contain toxic flame-retardant chemicals. One can only hope these are added to products with the best of intentions, but these same chemicals have been linked to cancer, learning disabilities and other disorders, according to the Oregon Environmental Council, based in Portland.

And through the natural process of aging and decomposition, these flame retardants don't say put in the foam. As the material ages and breaks down, the chemicals it contains migrate into household dust, the environment and our bodies.

When I saw this on a recent release from the organization, my eyebrows raised. I thought of my toddler and his stuffed animal we've dubbed "Puppy" and of his tiny-sized chair made of foam.

And while I hunted high and low for Alaska-related information on this topic, I couldn't find any. I did, however, come across numerous reports and studies out of California that reported findings echoing the same story, similar warnings and potential adverse side effects.

Yet there is an easy way to find out if any of your household items should be headed elsewhere - i.e. the garbage. Just check the tag.

(Even as I write this, I hesitate. I don't really want to send these items into Juneau's rapidly-shrinking landfill, nor do I want to try to explain why they've suddenly gone missing.)

These items also come with a listing of ingredients and materials (that is, if you didn't cut it off because it was annoyingly huge and not at all snugly). If the item meets "Technical Bulletin 117" standards and contains urethane foam, then about 10 percent of the foam is made of these cancer-causing chemicals - even though the foam itself doesn't pose a fire hazard. This is the bad stuff. If the foam is in good shape and fully contained, it's probably OK, for now.

But better options are out there. Look for new or gently-used items stuffed with polyester, down, wool or cotton. These are unlikely to contain toxic fire retardants.

After writing this, I cruised our office, peering under desk chairs. As it turns out, the chair I sit on every day is constructed with this very foam.

To my co-workers: If you find me sitting on a mound of wool tomorrow, you'll know why.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or

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