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.





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.





Fire retardants and mistrust of scientific data

8 08 2012

You may have read the series published by the Chicago Tribune which began on May 7, “Playing With Fire”, in which they expose the history of fire retardants which are used in furniture in the United States. The Tribune found that:

  • Chemicals that are used in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs to slow fire do not work.
  • Some fire retardant materials used over the years pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A lot of household furniture is chock full of these chemicals. They escape from the furniture and settle in dust. That’s particularly dangerous for toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths.

According to an editorial which was published in the Tribune on May 11, “you have been sold a false sense of security about the risk of your furniture burning, and you’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals you didn’t know about. If you’re not angry, you ought to be”.

How were U.S. consumers and manufacturers sold on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals?

According to the series:

  • It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry[1].  A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.  The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals  and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.  An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”  But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.
  • A prominent burn doctor’s misleading testimony was part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals. The chemical industry “has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact,” the authors wrote.  To read about this, click here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks

As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, said: It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.  To read his editorial, click here.

What I find intriguing about this expose is how the chemical lobby was able to pull this off.  We have known the science behind fire retardants for many years, just as we know the science behind global climate change.  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication , in conjunction with the Gallup Group, found that although most Americans (66%) now believe  climate change is happening,  only 42% believe that it is caused by human activities.[2]  Will scholars a thousand years from now wonder why, after scientists had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have published a book, Merchants of Doubt, that explores what they say is the widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus by the American public.[3]  They probe the history of organized campaigns, (similar to the one done by the three fire retardant manufacturers in the Playing with Fire series), to create public doubt and confusion about science.

In a review of the book which appeared in American Scientist, Robert Proctor says that the authors demonstrate “how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.”

The story, he says, helps explain why  “these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease”.  Rachael Carson is now, in this revisionist world,  blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT.

But what is at the bottom of all this is the definition of the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute.  Robert Proctor says the doubt mongers  “are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.”


[2] “Climate Change in the American Mind”, May 15, 2012, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,   MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,  Bloomsbury Press, 2010.