Orcas can’t, of course, pick out sofas. But if they could, they would tell you that their survival may depend on the product and furniture choices we make — and the industries we support in the process.

The orcas of the Salish Sea, who regularly cross the international boundary between Washington State and British Columbia, are among the most PCB-contaminated marine mammals in the world (Ross, Fireproof Killer Whales). They also harbor high levels of the fire-retardant compounds, PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenylethers). Because orcas, apex oceanic predators, are at a high trophic level in the food chain, these toxins bioaccumulate to extremely high levels in their fat tissue. And, with the southern resident pods’ existence already endangered in the Pacific Northwest, whale researchers are understandably concerned about the effects of these toxins on stressed orca populations.

Check out my post about Tucker, the scat-tracking dog to see the amazing way researchers are collecting orca scat samples.

Orca Dorsal Fin in Pacific Northwest

Dorsal - ©ingridtaylar

Fire Retardants and Furniture

A significant source of PBDEs is upholstered furniture. The European Union banned all forms of PBDEs, starting with the Penta and Octa forms in 2004. The U.S. followed by phasing out some forms of PBDEs. Washington State was the first in the U.S. to ban all forms. But, these chemicals, used as flame-retardants in furniture foam and other products, persist and degrade over time. They are found in household dust (you can see a comparison graph here). PBDEs also show up in human blood and in breast milk. These substances have been linked to detrimental effects in animals, including neurotoxicity — and they are suspected endocrine disruptors.

Graph courtesy of Sightline:

Graph of PBDE levels in breast milk

Fire retardants are used in everything from sofa poly foam to electronics to adult and baby mattresses. Sofas and mattresses sold in the U.S., unless you purchase special natural products (more on that in a minute), contain these chemicals. Although the recent scrutiny of PBDEs has forced the phaseout of existing compounds, new flame-resistant formulas take their place. Kathleen Curtis of the environmental advocacy group Clean New York explained in this this 2010 Salon piece (Kaplan), that the industries producing these chemicals can simply move “a few molecules” and then call those compounds new products. In the article, Curtis goes on to say, “Going after these flame retardants one at a time is like playing Whack-a-Mole. You knock one out and another one pops up. They are just buying time.” I highly recommend reading the rest of this article because Sheila Kaplan, an investigative reporter, consolidates into one piece, important information on how this state of our state came to be, and how it may be affecting our lives and our health.

Two Orcas Porpoising in the Pacific Northwest

Porpoising - ©ingridtaylar

Finding Fire-Retardant-Free Mattresses

Hugh and I have come face-to-fire-retardant, as it were, on this issue quite a few times. When we were looking for a new mattress 10 years ago, we became aware of the flame-resistant regulations and the chemicals used to meet those regulations. Back in the day, we found one local shop in Berkeley that carried natural mattresses without added chemicals (fire retardants, formaldehyde, etc.) Our mattress contains natural latex and organic cotton. You need a doctor’s prescription in the United States if you want a mattress without flame-resistant chemicals added. Or, you can purchase one with a layer of wool added, since wool has natural fire retardant properties and meets the standards of the flame-resistant regs. Some companies use locally-sourced eco wool which means the sheep are raised according to various natural and humane standards. We considered our mattress an investment — definitely more than you’d pay at a mattress warehouse. But, the peace of mind was worth it to us. (If you don’t have a local source, you can find some natural mattress options online, starting here and here.)

This year, we went looking for a similarly natural sofa, only to learn that sofas built from the same natural, untreated materials pretty much start at the $3000 mark — not in our optimal sofa budget. In an effort to furnish our spartan Seattle apartment, we broke down and bought what we thought was the next best thing: a USA-made, eco-friendly sofa from a reputable store, made with recycled wood, springs and cushion materials, and untreated slip covers. We were trying to overlook the fire retardant issue, against our better judgment.

When we unpacked the couch, post-delivery, the stench was unbelievable. It was clearly a chemical smell, but probably something other than fire retardants since my understanding is that flame-retardant compounds generally don’t have odors. There are numerous other materials that could have been off-gassing that smell, including the foam or the material treatments. Despite a considerable amount of airing out, we were unable to get rid of the odor. And then, our asthmatic cat developed a severe reaction to the sofa. So, we wrapped it up in a polyethylene mattress cover, and waited for the company to come take it away.

Orca Swimming Past Sailboat in Haro Strait

Interaction - ©ingridtaylar

Sofas and Orcas: Full Circle

The week after our personal sofa-gate, Hugh and I took a trip up to British Columbia to spend some time with the orca pods. On our first trip out, we saw a resident pod in the distance and our captain, a super guy, chosen by us because of his reputation for ethical whale watching, cut the engine of our Zodiac boat. We sat in silence with just the burst of air resounding from orca breaths, and the occasional splash of a distant, breaching whale. As we listened to orca voices through the captain’s hydrophone, dipped below the water’s surface, he engaged us with the natural history of Northwest orcas. Among the things he brought up was how fire retardants were affecting the local populations of orcas. “Do you know how hard it is to find an affordable mattress without fire retardants?” he asked. Hugh and I were thinking — um, yes, in fact, we do.

Our personal sofa quest had come full circle in a poignant communion with the orca families. We decided in that moment that if it’s a choice between an unfurnished living room, or a product that’s potentially degrading these substances into the environment, it will have to be the empty living room. I still feel badly for the sofa that didn’t have to be — the one we ended up returning. My understanding is that they will re-sell or recycle the sofa which, in turn, will end up in the environment someday, whole or in fragments. I have some serious orca karma to pay for that misguided decision. I’m starting on my pre-pay plan now.

This video excerpt below shows a segment from the film, Call of the Killer Whale. The clip features Jean-Michel Cousteau and other participants getting their blood tests and results, checking for PCBs and PBDEs.

I’ll be posting more about orca health, how researchers test for PBDEs and other cool orca factoids. The upshot of our my orca photography excursion is that my camera went on the fritz the same day we saw our first resident pods. It’s been at the Olympus hospital for a few weeks now. Last week, I got a UPS tracking number which gives me hope that E-3 will be back in my paws soon.

:: Related: The Orca-Scat Tracking Dog | The Salmon Ladder to Success