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
Toxic Hot Seat
This landmark 2013 documentary is now available for online viewing via HBO Go.
Click here for more information
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.
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
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.
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.
- Peer-reviewed paper: Novel and high volume use flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 pentaBDE phase out
- Peer-reviewed paper: Flame retardants in furniture foam – Benefits and risks
- Fact sheet with references: Flame retardants in furniture – Health, environment and fire safety
- References: Furniture flame retardants and health
- References: Furniture flame retardants and environment