California has approved a new flammability standard for residential furniture that is receiving widespread praise among environmentalists. But we’d like you to examine, with us, some details about the new standard that you’ll need to know to keep you and your family safe from these extremely toxic chemicals.
California is the only state in the U.S. with a mandatory flammability standard for residential furniture. The original law, TB117, was passed with all the good will in the world – to protect people from dying in house fires by giving them time to escape. But as is often the case, there were unintended consequences – we have found that the fire retardant chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility – and more. These chemicals both persist (i.e, last a long time) and bioaccumulate (i.e., are absorbed at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost – leading to a risk of chronic poisoning) in human systems. And the final straw: ironically, the chemicals don’t protect us from fires – they just allow the material not to fail the flammability test. In actual fires, the materials do burn, and just as massively as untreated foam, and that releases toxic smoke into the air; one pundit has said that firefighters have more to fear from the smoke than from the actual fire.
Recently, there has been growing pressure to change California’s “Technical Bulletin 117”, which required furniture manufacturers to inject flame retardant chemicals into the polyurethane foam used in all upholstered furniture sold in the state. (Please note: the law only pertained to filling materials.) Because California is such a huge market, this law has become a de facto national standard. This pressure was fueled by a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the articles) , and more recently by the HBO film, Toxic Hot Seat, both of which exposed the considerable health risks of flame retardant chemicals, as well as the attempts by the chemical industry to thwart attempts at reform.
Why are flame retardant chemicals required in polyurethane foam? Answer: Because polyurethane is basically solid gasoline, which means it’s basically an accelerant. The old test required that it pass a test by withstanding an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting. Because this is impossible, the chemicals were added to prevent ignition.
What makes the new TB117-2013 different is that the test methods have changed. Legislators decided to amend the manner in which flammability is measured. They reasoned that most house fires start from smoldering cigarettes, which cause the fabric to smolder and catch fire – not from within the cushion in the foam. They thought that upholstery cover fabrics play a more important role in fire behavior performance than filling materials – flames start on the fabric, not from deep within the cushions, so the best way to prevent the foam from igniting is to make sure that the surface materials do not smolder in the first place.
So the new test did away with the 12 second open flame test and replaced it with a smolder-only test. In this test, a lighted cigarette (not an open flame) is placed on the surface of the furniture. If charring occurs which is 2 inches or less, the furniture is considered to pass. This is a much easier test to pass than the open flame test.
So the new TB117-2013 enables foam manufacturers to reduce or eliminate flame retardant chemicals – but it doesn’t forbid their use. The new law was designed to enable manufacturers to eliminate the flame retardants, but if they choose to use them it’s not illegal. It’s up to manufacturers to decide how they plan to meet the new standard.
Most fabrics used in upholstery today are synthetics or synthetic blends (natural fiber/synthetic). And synthetics are created from crude oil – so they too are basically solid gasoline. An accelerant. Fabrics can be fire retarded easily and cheaply, and it’s very commonly done. So although the foam manufacturers can (if they so choose) eliminate flame retardant chemicals in the foam, the burden of passing a smolder test now falls on the fabric. It seems to me that the flame retardant chemicals are now just going to be found in the fabrics rather than the foam.
The new law was originally supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2014, but manufacturers, who said they “needed the additional times to deplete current supplies and effectuate the new regulatory changes” extended the new date to January 1, 2015. However, starting in January, 2014, manufacturers will be able to sell furniture with a “TB117-2013” tag – so consumers should make sure to ask whether the sofa or chair has been treated with flame retardant chemicals. Manufacturers are not required to disclose whether they use flame retardants or not, and few label their products.
If you really want to be sure, the Center for Environmental Health can test foam to detect the presence of flame retardants. The tests only indicate whether certain elements are present, such as chlorine or bromine. If so, it is likely the foam was treated with flame retardants. If you want information on how to use this free service, click here.
Even if the foam is tested and found not to contain flame retardants, that is by no means a clean bill of health for your sofa, because the fabrics may well contain flame retardants. And a TB117-2013 label on a piece of furniture is not a guarantee that there are no flame retardants used in the piece.
And we think it’s pretty critical to add this final caveat – flame retardant chemicals are just ONE of the many chemicals which may be found in your fabrics. Textile production uses a lot of chemicals, most of which have toxicity profiles as equally unsavory as flame retardants: consider formaldehyde, perfluorocarbons (PFC’s), benzene, APEO’s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and Bisphenol A in synthetics, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. So to limit yourselves to eliminating flame retardant chemicals from the fabrics or furniture you live with – as wonderful as that is – means you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.