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    Three new studies confirm that exposures to common insecticides during pregnancy can cut a child’s IQ 4% to 7%  by age 9.
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Ellen Cooper, Duke University

Dec 04, 2014
Dr. Ellen Cooper

Dr. Ellen Cooper

What is the Duke Foam Project?

The Duke Foam Project is a free service open to the public for screening foam samples for commonly used flame retardants. The project falls under Duke’s Superfund Research Center Analytical Chemistry Core. Participants can access the service through our website (, where they can learn about the project, about various flame retardants and how people are exposed to them, how to reduce exposure, and how to submit a sample for analysis. The project is the first of its kind; no other service is available to consumers to learn what flame retardants are used in the products they purchase. This information is not provided by the manufacturer. The project also serves Duke researchers by providing a means to gather information about flame retardant use in consumer products across the country.


Why should we be concerned about flame retardants in furniture? Aren’t they used to keep us safe?

That is the original premise of why these chemicals are added to foam—to suppress flames should a product catch fire. However, these chemicals easily migrate out of products, accumulate in homes and other indoor environments, and several studies across multiple research groups have shown that some of these chemicals have potential for a variety of health effects. There are important questions being raised over the actual effectiveness of these chemicals in suppressing the spread of fire, and thereby how much fire safety they provide to the consumer.



My sofa cushions are covered by fabric. Can I still be exposed to flame retardants?

Yes. Fabric certainly can provide some barrier, but it does not entirely protect against exposure to flame retardant chemicals. For example, many flame retardant chemicals are not actually bound to the foam, so theoretically they could move into the fabric where people’s skin could contact them. Or, foam could break down, and small dust-sized pieces of foam could migrate through woven fabric and come into contact with people. Several studies have indicated that exposure from house dust is the primary route.

K. Davis working in the laboratory

K. Davis working in the laboratory

 Once you collect all of this data, what questions do you hope to answer and how will those answers benefit the general public?

We hope to get a better understanding of what flame retardants are being used in which types of consumer products and to perhaps gain insight into temporal trends in flame retardant usage. This information can guide researchers as they explore how people might be exposed to flame retardants in their homes, and better evaluate if any health impacts may be associated with these flame retardants in indoor environments. For the general public, results provide information as to what chemicals are in their products—information previous not easily available and not without charge. With these results, consumers may make more informed choices with regard to home products. In the long term, perhaps results from scientific studies can help shed light on health impact, and these findings can be used to protect public health.




Do you have any suggestions for avoiding unnecessary exposure to flame retardants?

On the Foam Project website, we have listed several things people can do to reduce personal exposure. These include (but are not limited to) cleaning floors and surfaces frequently to limit dust accumulation using a vacuum with HEPA filter or with a wet mop (or wet disposable towel for dusting), avoiding products containing polyurethane foam unless they are known to not contain flame retardants, and washing hands (especially children’s hands) frequently, particularly before eating.

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