Harvard extinguishing flame retardants to protect students

University joins national pledge not to buy furniture with chemical flame-retardants
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 28, 2016

A risk of fire may be less dangerous than the chemicals used to prevent it, and Harvard is adapting accordingly.

The Healthy Green Campus project—an initiative to improve student health through sustainable practices—grew out of a collaboration between Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers from the university’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, and the Silent Spring Institute.

Research done at Harvard and elsewhere (including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) has linked a class of chemical flame retardants to cancer, neurological dysfunction and reproductive harm. The retardants are commonly found in furniture upholstery and foam.

Furthermore, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says these chemicals do not necessarily create a greater level of safety than untreated furniture; they also emit higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot and smoke when burned.

For these reasons, Harvard has joined a national pledge not to buy furniture with chemical flame-retardants. (Facebook, Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts and others have also signed onto this pledge.)

Heather Henriksen, director of the Harvard University Office for Sustainability, says student health should be a priority when addressing sustainability challenges on campus. A holistic plan will outline administrative strategy as well as awareness efforts for the general population.

“Driven by research, we have also worked to educate our community about this issue and provide tools to make a difference, including how to reduce exposure through washing hands and cleaning surfaces,” she says.

Harvard provides a toolkit and buyer’s guide for other universities considering this change.