By Olivia ZhuClose up of sofa in the living room

The dangers of flame retardants have long been the source of public health debate, thrust into the public eye by legislators, non-profit organizations, and special interest groups.

Often missing, though, is the story of the extensive scientific background necessary to ground these arguments: Heather Stapleton, the Dan and Bunny Gabel Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Environmental Management, and research scientist Ellen Cooper and their teams  fill this role at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

As a former intern at the Center for Environmental Health, where I advocated against legislation that promotes the use of flame retardant chemicals, I was fascinated to learn the technical side of the conversation from Cooper.

Flame retardants have been present in furniture and other foam-based items largely due to fire safety regulations like California’s TB117, which requires home furniture to resist bursting into flame for a certain amount of time. Historically, manufacturers have met this standard by using flame retardant chemicals that may impact brain development in children or even cause cancer. Consequently, foam producers have added flame retardants to all their foam, even foam meant for products not covered under TB117. Evidently, the resulting flame retardant-laden selection of furniture poses a threat to the health of consumers, who effectively have little choice in protecting themselves against potentially dangerous chemicals.

Nicholas school environmental chemist Heather Stapleton in the lab. (Duke Photography)

Nicholas school environmental chemist Heather Stapleton in the lab. (Duke Photography)

Unsurprisingly, scientifically studying flame retardants requires rigorous chemical analysis. Ellen Cooper, along with the Analytical Chemistry Core, specializes in preparing foam samples and running them through mass spectrometers to identify the flame retardants. The Chemistry Core collaborates with the Stapleton Lab to ensure accurate analysis of often-fragile flame retardants. Both are a part of Duke’s Superfund Research Center.

Cooper’s work has been instrumental in the Stapleton lab’s creation of a foam testing service for consumers. In January, the Stapleton lab started the first foam testing service ever open to the public! Now, consumers can send in up to five samples from their furniture to receive complimentary results which are provided by the Analytical Chemistry Core. On the foam testing website, consumers can also find statistics on common sources of flame retardants and information on how to avoid exposure to flame retardants. Through these efforts, the Stapleton lab is allowing consumers to take back their autonomy.

Additionally, Cooper is working to create a database of all collected samples. Currently, there exists no definite data on which manufacturers’ products contain which flame retardants, or how levels of flame retardants in furniture have changed over time. With enough data points,  Cooper and her team hope to create such heat maps or time analyses, making for a more informed debate, and ultimately a more well-protected public.