I think you are right to be concerned about your family's exposure to these chemicals. They are a very frightening class of materials, since they do build up in people and animals (bioaccumulate) and are associated with reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental and neurological disorders.??
I would guess, given the age of your home, that your carpet padding would contain PBDE. These products began being used extensively in the 1980s. Although PBDEs have gotten a lot of negative attention lately, including bans in the states of California (2006), Washington (2007), and Maine (2007), they are being replaced with other brominated fire retardants which also are bioaccumulative.
The main uses of these fire retardants in American homes are in electronic housings, building insulation, polyurethane foam, and cable and wire. Of all of these sources, foam in carpet padding and upholstery concerns me the most, because it is inside the home. As these products break down, they contribute to house dust, and become available to a home's residents.??
My recommendation would be to continue vacuuming regularly, since early research seems to indicate that exposure to house dust is the main route of ingestion. (I am sorry to tell anyone they should vacuum more -- I hate it also!) It also is a good idea to be meticulous about washing hands before eating, as your hands can have dust on them which can be consumed with food.??
If you do want to test your carpet sample, there are a couple of choices. I contacted Rebecca Daly, a program associate at the Green Science Policy Institute, and she ran through the options for me.
Rent an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) detector
There is a tool called an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) gun which looks for the presence of bromine in the foam. Since bromine is a key component of all varieties of questionable fire retardants, this is a good way to detect their presence. This instrument can give you the percentage by weight of bromine in the product. If one percent or more bromine is detected, the product has most likely been treated with brominated flame retardants, presenting an exposure risk.
There are several companies offering rental of this instrument to consumers. One such company can be found here, but I would suggest you search the internet to see if you can find a local company.??
Send your sample to a lab for analysis
If operating the XRF gun sounds daunting, it is also possible to send a sample of the foam (a 1-inch cube) to a laboratory with high-resolution mass spectrometry or selective ion monitoring capabilities.
Commercial laboratories offering this service are oriented for industrial testing rather than for consumers, so this may not be a practical or cheap method.
Nonprofit organizations or university labs often have such equipment; if you contact them they may, in some cases, offer to test a small amount of samples for a small cost. I know that the state of Oregon is very concerned about the accumulation of PBDEs in the Columbia River Basin, and I would guess that local universities would be sympathetic to testing source materials such as carpet padding or furniture foam.
Future furniture and flooring choices
??As you make future furniture and carpet purchases, it is a good idea to try and avoid polyurethane foam as much as possible.
Latex foam is not treated with fire retardants. Instead, it is often wrapped in a fire barrier cloth, or wool batting, to make the item of furniture fire resistant. If you are ordering a sofa, ask if they can use a spring construction for the pillows, with a down or polyester wrapping -- rather than foam -- for softness.
??For flooring, a hard surface that can be wet-cleaned is the best for keeping down house dust. This can be softened with natural area rugs (check to make sure they are not backed with foam, and that pads do not contain fire retardants).
California Bulletin 117
Finally, it is useful to know that any product that is labeled as complying with California Bulletin 117 probably contains brominated chemicals.
??I hope this information helps you decide whether to replace your carpet, which I would recommend, or get it tested so you know what you have in your home.
For more information:
Read Mary Cordaro's Ask A Pro Q&A, "Do BFRs (brominated flame retardants) offgas or persist in upholstery? Would they be in the stuffing of a sofa, or in the fabric cover?"