Flame Retardants in Furniture

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Duke University and Green Science Policy Institute scientists find 85% of sofas contain flame retardants.

Introduction

Problem: A 1975 California standard led to the use of harmful and potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products across North America.

We have been working with policy makers, scientists, and industry since 2006 to revise this standard so that fire-safe furniture without flame retardants can be made available.

California enacted an updated furniture standard in 2014. It can be met without flame retardant chemicals, though it does not ban the use of flame retardants.

Prevalence of flame retardants in furniture

In collaboration with Dr. Heather Stapleton at Duke University, we tested the foam of 101 American couches bought between 1984-2010. We found that 85% of the couches contained harmful or inadequately tested flame retardant chemicals in the foam.

These chemicals are linked to numerous health and environmental problems.

Flame retardants we found in couches:

  • TDCPP (chlorinated Tris), listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011
  • PentaBDE, (pentabrominated diphenyl ether) globally banned due to toxicity and environmental persistence
  • Firemaster 550, associated with obesity and anxiety in one animal study

Read the full study, published in Environmental Science & Technology. You can also read more about furniture and flame retardants on our blog.

Toxic Hot Seat

This landmark 2013 documentary is now available for online viewing via HBO Go.
Click here for more information

How are we exposed to flame retardant chemicals?

Selected Bibliographies: Studies on Health and Environmental Impacts of Flame Retardants.

Contrary to industry claims that flame retardants are safe, many hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies document their accumulation and/or harm in humans, animals, and the environment.

References: Furniture flame retardants and health

References: Furniture flame retardants and environment

Flammability standards and fire safety

Flame retardants became common additives in U.S. furniture foam in response to California flammability standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), adopted in 1975. Even though TB117 was a California regulation, manufacturers often sold TB117-compliant products across the U.S. and Canada to avoid maintaining a double inventory and for defense against liability claims.

Flame retardants added to furniture foam to meet TB117:

  • Do not prevent ignition – the cover fabric will catch on fire whether or not the foam contains flame retardants
  • Do not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time – normal furniture and TB117-compliant furniture burn similarly

Read the full study, published in Fire Safety Science

TB117 also encouraged flame retardant use in many children’s products. Polyurethane foam is the most common filling used inside both furniture and children’s products. In order to pass the TB117 open flame test, flame retardants were often added to the polyurethane foam filling.

tech-117

California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117):

  • Was implemented in 1975
  • Was administered by the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI)
  • Required the filling, usually polyurethane foam, inside products to withstand a 12-second exposure to an open flame
  • Applied to upholstered furniture, including juvenile furniture and some items considered to be furniture
  • Resulted in use of flame retardants even in items not required to meet the standard, such as nap mats and mattress pads
  • Was the de facto standard followed by most manufacturers across the U.S. and Canada

Policy Changes

In California

In 2012, the governor directed the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) to revise TB117 for better fire safety without the need for flame retardant chemicals.

On Feb 8, 2013, the Bureau announced a replacement standard, TB117-2013, took effect January 1, 2014 and became mandatory for new furniture manufactured after January 1, 2015.  Read more in our blog.

Nationally

In 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed a smolder test for fabric similar to TB-117-2013 called 16 CFR Part 1634 that would not lead to the use of flame retardant chemicals. There is no timeline for possible implementation of this standard.

TB117-2013 is now in effect

TB117-2013 protects public health and increases fire safety: it can be met without flame retardant chemicals and it addresses smoldering ignition of furniture cover fabrics, where fires start. Smoldering ignitions are the leading cause of furniture fires in the United States. This means improved fire safety without toxic chemicals.

Resources

Press: Flame Retardants in Furniture

CBS Local: California Kids Have Higher Levels Of Flame Retardant…

Watch Just weeks after congress passed a law giving the Environmental Protection Agency more power to ban harmful chemicals; a new study demonstrates just …

11 Jul 2016

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KPFA Terra Verde Radio: A Sticky Issue: The Toxic Truth About Te…

Listen Ever wondered if that chemical coating on your nonstick pan was safe for your health? Tune in on Friday, April 29 to learn more about the toxic chemicals present in the nonstick and waterpr…

29 Apr 2016

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KALW Your Call Radio: Toxic chemicals lurking in your home

Listen From flame retardant furniture to cleaning supplies, our homes harbor countless chemicals. Due to gaps in US regulations, the health and environmental risks of thousands of chemicals remain…

06 Apr 2016

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The New York Times: Tainted-Water Worries Spread to Vermont Vill…

Above the Walloomsac River, where ramshackle farmhouses sit just downhill from tidy homes with organic gardens out back, the old ChemFab plant was, for man…

14 Mar 2016

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Chemical Watch: Kaiser Permanente: managing chemicals of concern

Kaiser Permanente has recently committed to phasing out the use of per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in its furnishings, removing flame retardant…

01 Feb 2016

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New York Times and Retro Report: A Flame Retardant That Came Wit…

This New York Times article, featuring a video by Retro Report, concisely recounts the flame retardant saga. If you closely examine your living room cou…

03 May 2015

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Michigan Public Radio Environment Report: Furniture Makers Getti…

This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories about firefighters and cancer. Firefighters say they’re worried about getting exposed to certain ki…

09 Apr 2015

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Chicago Tribune: Furniture firms shun flame retardants but some …

New safety regulations allow upholstered furniture to be made without flame retardants, but consumers may find it difficult to tell whether a retail…

23 Jan 2015

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The Sacramento Bee: Concern grows in firefighters, others after …

A growing body of evidence found an array of flame-retardant chemicals – many which are carcinogenic – in test participants, a potential health concern f…

30 Nov 2014

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Huffington Post: Would you like flame retardants with that couch…

Most of Aimee Robinson's customers are moms. And more of them are starting to ask questions about the contents of the couches and chairs she constructs.…

21 Jul 2014

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Houston Chronicle: Chem-free beds are doctor's orders

Article includes this section on the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange: The demand for cleaner furnishings across the country is leading to some other unconven…

04 Jul 2014

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SF Chronicle: Program seeks to get harmful chemicals out of furn…

When Lori Yonelunas decided to detoxify her life, she knew she had to do something about her toxic leather couch but was reluctant to get rid of it.…

18 Jun 2014

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Science & Policy Blog: Flame Retardants in Furniture

A Perfect Storm

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“Remove the Handle” – Calling on the CPSC to Turn Off the Toxic Pump

Should you ever find yourself enjoying a pint at London’s John Snow Pub, you might raise a glass to the pub’s namesake, Dr. John Snow, the “father of epidemiology.” In th…

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Backfire: Unintended Consequences of Flame Retardants

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The Nature of the Beast

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The Proof is in the Sewage: Can Harmful Chemicals Move from Sofas to…

Rolf Halden: halogenated flame retardants contaminate natural resources and our bodies Rolf Halden is a professor at Arizona State University, adjunct faculty at John …

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Introducing Our Blog Series "Scientist Spotlight: The Scientists Beh…

Imagine you are reclining on your couch and turning on a horror movie. Did you know that the flame retardants in your couch may be scarier than the monster on the screen?…

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What’s in your house dust? Study Participants Wanted

Do you live in Northern California? Are you planning to buy a new couch or swap out your old foam cushions for new, flame retardant-free furnishings before November, 2…

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Presentations: Flame Retardants in Furniture

Flame Retardants in Upholstered Furniture: History and Implications

Speaker: Arlene Blum Visiting Scholar, University of California Berkeley; Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute …

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Design and Operation of Landfills

Speaker: Morton Barlaz Professor and Head of Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, North Carolina State University [toggle header="More abo…

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U.S. Solid Waste Management Infrastructure

Speaker: Morton Barlaz Professor and Head of Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, North Carolina State University [toggle header="More abo…

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Current Status of Recycling and Thermal Waste Destruction in the U.S…

Speaker: Marco Castaldi Associate Professor, City University of New York Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foams and…

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Fate and Transport - Rapid Overview

Speaker: Tom Young Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Davis Event The Responsible Man…

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Shredder Residue from End-of-Life Electronics and Automobiles as Cas…

Speaker: Brian Riise Director of Research and Development, MBA Polymers Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foams and …

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GHG Implications of Waste Plastics/Foams Management and Disposal

Speaker: Glenn Gallagher Air Quality Scientist, California Air Resources Board Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foa…

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Solid Waste Management Practice and Research

Speaker: Ramin Yazdani Senior Civil Engineer, Yolo County; Research Professor, University of California Davis Event The Resp…

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PBDEs in Waste Streams – Health Implications?

Speaker: Myrto Petreas Branch Chief, California Department of Toxic Substances Control Event The Responsible Management of W…

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Historic Use of Flame Retardants in U.S. Flexible Polyurethane Foam

Speaker: Bob Luedeka Executive Director, Polyurethane Foam Association Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foams and P…

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Mechanical Treatment of FPF – The Recycling Solution

Speaker: Bob Clark Executive Director, Carpet Cushion Council Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foams and Plastics M…

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Optimize Recycling – Improving Recycled Foam in Building Products

Speaker: Wes Sullens Green Building Policy & Advocacy Manager, StopWaste Event The Responsible Management of Waste Foams and…

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