What does the new TB117-2013 mean to you?

16 12 2013

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.

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Fire retardants: the new asbestos

9 05 2013

My toxic couch:

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the “new asbestos”. These chemicals (halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly known as PBDE’s. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, responding to the series published by that paper about flame retardants called “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the series), said the use of flame retardants is a public health debacle.

According to “Playing with Fire”, the average American baby is born with “10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded level of flame retardants among infants in the world.” Many of these chemicals accumulate within the blood, fat, and even breast milk, causing a number of unknown health risks. One common ingredient in flame retardants, BDE-49, has recently been found to damage neural mitochondria, leading to brain damage. The same study also found evidence of autism effects being amplified by environmental factors.(1) The MIND Institute at UC Davis, responsible for the study, summarized it by saying the “chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power,” noting that the findings “bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders.”

These chemicals accumulate in human tissues – and they last a really long time . In addition, we’re being constantly re-exposed because they’re ubiquitous in the environment – they’re used for foam in cushions, but also in such things as baby strollers, carpeting, mattresses and electronics. These chemicals are also found in mother’s milk in every country of the world and in animals – from polar bears in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the Amazon.

In the United States, California has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. This standard is called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which was passed in 1975 and requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because California is such a large market, and also because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of a published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[2] In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States – and people in the United States have levels of PBDE higher than anyone else in the world.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants. These chemicals are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [3] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[4] Tris is now being used again at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture, yet from 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And during a fire when the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[5]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

And when a ban does go into effect, it’s usually severely restricted: for example, in the USA, BPA is now banned in baby bottles – but only in baby bottles. Many products tout the fact that they’re “BPA free” but that’s because the chemical has hit a nerve with consumers, who recognize that BPA isn’t a good thing to have in plastic water bottles, for example, so the manufacturers voluntarily restrict its use. Another example is lead, which has been banned in the USA in some products– paint and gasoline come quickly to mind – but is still used in others, such as plastics, printing, and dyes. New legislation restricts the amount of lead that can be present in products designed for children to 100 ppm, despite the fact that research shows that any detectable amount of lead can be harmful to kids.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, introduced in February, 2011. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers – Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. – resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe. This despite opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. But new life is again being breathed into this issue, and California has introduced a new TB117-2013 to address the problem by changing the testing parameters so as not to need flame retardants.

But stay tuned – the chemical industry has a lot at stake and they won’t go down without a fight.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.

(1) Napoli E, Hung C, Wong S, Giulivi C., “Toxicity of the flame-retardant BDE-49 on brain mitochondria and neuronal progenitor striatal cells enhanced by a PTEN-deficient background” Toxicol Sci. 2013 Mar;132(1):196-210.
[2] Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”, http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874
[3] Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608. http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991
[4] Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.
[5] Ibid.





How to buy a “quality” sofa – soy foam

19 09 2012

In my last post I explained that polyurethane foam (polyfoam) has a plethora of problems associated with it:

  • The chemicals used to manufacture the foam have been formally identified as carcinogens; and the flame retardant chemicals added to almost all foams increase the chemical toxicity.  These chemicals evaporate (VOCs)  and pollute our indoor air and dust;
  • It does not decompose in the landfill; the recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous chemicals;
  • It is dependent on a non-renewable resource: crude oil.

When untreated foam (aka, “solid gasoline”)  is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam – hydrogen cyanide gas.  Hydrogen cyanide itself is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Polyfoam is so flammable  – burning  so hot and emitting such toxic fumes while burning –  that even the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recommends that it be placed in Class 9 (an unusual but clearly hazardous material) because they are concerned about the safety of firemen and other first responders.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.

But today – not long after jumping on the bandwagon –  we have concerns about polyurethane:  in addition to all the problems mentioned above there is concern about its carbon footprint. So now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock, CEO of Upholstery Arts,  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   I have again leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So-called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. As Len Laycock asks, if you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations (theoretical because 40% soy has not resulted in useable foams). This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’ as claimed.

It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

In “Killing You Softly“, Len Laycock presents another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale. As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”





How to evaluate a “quality” sofa – part 1

15 08 2012

In light of the recent Chicago Tribune series, “Playing with Fire”  about the deceptive campaigns waged by manufacturers of flame retardants, it seems that with each call we get,  we end up talking about flame retardants.  We think that’s skewed, because flame retardants, though certainly something we wouldn’t want to live with, are not the only monsters in the dark.  So we want to talk again about what makes a “green”,  “safe”, or “sustainable” sofa  – whatever you want to call it – and how to evaluate manufacturers claims.  What we mean is a sofa that does not compromise your health – or mine.   So you can live with a sofa which does not contain chemicals which can harm you, but if a manufacturer does not capture the environmental pollutants created during the process, the end result will be the same – it will just take a bit longer.

So we’re going to do a series of blog posts on the various components of a sofa, so you’ll be better able to evaluate the claims manufacturers are making.

The first order of business is to find out what makes a “quality” sofa.   In looking at what makes a “quality” sofa, I  didn’t pay any attention to the “green” (or not) attributes of each item – we’re simply talking about quality so you’ll be able to evaluate a sofa.  After all, it’s not a “green” option to buy a sofa that you’ll have to replace in two years.  Think about furniture you see in museums that have all their original parts – including fabric – and are often hundreds of years old.  That’s what quality components can do for you.

These are the components of a typical sofa:

  • Wood
  • Foam (most commonly) or other cushion filling
  • Fabric
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Glue
    • Varnish/paint
    • Metal springs
    • Thread
    • Jute webbing
    • Twine

The frame, seating support, cushion filling and decorative fabric all determine your sofa’s level of comfort, and its ability to retain its shape and stability in the years to come.  

How long a sofa will last, and retain its shape,  depends largely on the frame, and a high quality sofa will always have a strong, sturdy one.  A higher quality sofa uses kiln-dried hardwoods  – this process removes all moisture from the frame, enabling it to retain its shape and stability over a long period of time.  Green and/or knotted wood can shrink or crack.   Some better quality sofas use plywood, but if you have to choose a sofa with plywood, make sure it has 11 – 13 layers of plywood and not fewer. Lower quality sofas use particleboard /MDF board.

In a high quality sofa, special attention is paid to the joints, which are dowelled or screwed into place rather than glued.  Some manufacturers even cut costs by using watered down glue.  Joints are secured with corner blocking, dowels and screws, which last longer than just glue and staples.

Regarding seating support:

  • The best seating support is the eight-way hand tied springs system. The craftsman connects each spring to the adjoining one with a strong twine. The twine passes front to back, side to side and then diagonally in both directions thus tying each spring securely.
  • Another seating support system is sinuous spring construction. Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side. This also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.
  • The third option is web suspension in which bands of webbing cross the seat and back. These are then attached to the frame to make a platform for the cushions. Webbing can be made of either natural or man-made fibers, and if used alone doesn’t make for very strong support. However, in better quality sofas, it can be used with a tensioner that fastens the webbing securely to the frame. The web suspension is the least preferable of the seating support options.

Ticking is used between the upholstery foam or latex and the decorative fabric cover; stitches are even and not bunched.

The most common filling used in sofa cushions is high density polyurethane.   Density is measured in pounds per cubic foot (PCF).  And of course there is a lot of variability in density –  it  can run from 1.2 PCF for lowest quality foam, to 1.7 PCF for average quality sofa cushions and up to 2.2 PCF for high quality cushions.   Firmness and resiliency are qualities that make a higher quality foam.  Natural latex is another filling option, and also comes in varying densities.  The lifespan of polyurethane averages 10 years; latex is supposed to have double that life expectancy.  Before there was polyurethane foam, however, people used a variety of materials, such as horsehair and cotton or wool batting.

Fillings can be wrapped in softer material such as wool, cotton or Dacron, which is the cheapest option. Down is considered to be the premium filling choice, and is among the most expensive choices, but cushions filled only with down require daily maintenance. High quality down cushions will have down proof ticking under the upholstery fabric to prevent feathers from poking through.

Down used in combination with other materials is another option, but also expensive. Pads made out of a Dacron® polyester fiber and down, known as Blendown pads, are wrapped around high density foam.  These pads can also be used with springs that have been wrapped up in foam. High density foam surround the springs that are then wrapped in down pads. The result is a soft surface with a strong, resilient support inside. This is a good option as the cushions do not lose their shape easily.