Flame Retardants in Furniture

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Duke University and Green Science Policy Institute scientists finds 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 for fire-safe, flame retardant free furniture.

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 toxic 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 retardant additives in U.S. furniture foam became the norm in response to California flammability standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), adopted in 1975. Even though TB117 was a California standard, manufacturers often chose to sell 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
  • Was often used for 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, which is now in effect as of January 1, 2014.  Read more in our blog.

Nationally

In 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed a similar smolder test for fabric 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 by addressing how and where fires start in the real world. Fires start on fabric, and cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. TB117-2013 requires a smolder test for fabric, which was absent from the old standard. And flame retardant chemicals are not needed in order to meet TB117-2013. This means improved fire safety without toxic chemicals.

Resources

Press: Flame Retardants in Furniture

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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Philly.com GreenSpace: New standard cutting flame-retardant chem…

In the market for some new furniture? That couch or armchair is changing - for the better, many health and environmental advocates say. For that, we c…

08 Jun 2014

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Huffington Post: Kaiser Permanente pledges to stop buying flame-…

The push to rid our bodies and the environment of toxic flame retardants just got a powerful boost from a major health care system, according to experts…

03 Jun 2014

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U-Tech Polyurethane: Foam exchange programme to replace flame re…

San Francisco, California – A programme called the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange is offering to replace flame-retarded foam in furniture with what the Green Sci…

29 May 2014

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More Magazine: The 4th annual Fierce List – Sofa, so good

More Magazine published their 4th annual "Fierce List", profiling "Fifty women so forceful and resourceful, untiring and inspiring, they'll jolt your brain, bolster your faith, and feed your soul." Th…

01 May 2014

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CBS5 ConsumerWatch: Chemical-free couch foam now available

Couch owners who want to limit their exposure to flame retardant chemicals now have a new option. The Safer Sofa Foam Exchange is a new program that helps consumers replace the old foam in thei…

22 Apr 2014

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San Jose Mercury News: Berkeley scientist battles toxic sofas to…

The banner that Arlene Blum unfurled in 1976 on the 24,500-foot mark of the world's highest mountain had an image of two petri dishes and an obscure mess…

18 Mar 2014

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Chicago Tribune: Surgeon rebuked for flame-retardant falsehoods

In a stern rebuke of a noted surgeon, the state of Washington has issued disciplinary charges against Dr. David Heimbach, who told lawma…

13 Mar 2014

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Huffington Post: Flame-retardant furniture may leave a toxic leg…

Arlene Blum was trekking in the Himalayas when new regulations to reduce the pervasiveness of flame retardants hit the books on Jan. 1 -- more than seve…

04 Jan 2014

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PBS NewsHour: Calif. law change sparks debate over use of flame …

Flame retardants are commonplace in most upholstered furniture to help prevent house fires. But studies have linked the chemicals to cancer and fertility problems, prompting California to change t…

01 Jan 2014

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Science & Policy Blog: Flame Retardants in Furniture

My foam exchange story: How I saved big bucks without passing the bu…

I bought my sofa in California, “home” of the TB117 standard. I know 75-94% of sofas tested contain flame retardants. And clear as day, sewn onto my couch was a TB117 lab…

Read more

Why can’t I buy flame retardant-free furniture in California yet?

Perhaps you, too, were waiting for that clock to strike midnight on January 1, 2014 to buy a new sofa. In that one second, a regulation that led to the use of toxic flame…

Read more

A new year, with promising new regulations

2013 was a productive year for fire safety and for environmental health! Two important regulatory changes that take effect this year have the power to reduce the use …

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Opposition to proposed federal furniture standard is LOUD and CLEAR

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently issued a notice that they are considering an open flame flammability standard which could lead to the use of more f…

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California's proposed furniture standard: What you need to know

Proposed regulation is a win-win-win for fire safety, health and environment Usually people aren't eagerly awaiting the arrival of new furniture flammability stand…

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GSP responds to ACC statement

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is a trade organization which represents numerous companies including Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL North America, the three largest m…

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Does my furniture contain flame retardants?

Question of the week Does my furniture contain flame retardants? The unsatisfactory answer is that the only way to know for sure is to test the foam by analytical ch…

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Flame retardant chemicals: from couches to kids

Our new study with Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University looking at flame retardants in 102 American couches was published today in Environmental Science & Technol…

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Presentations: Flame Retardants in Furniture

Responsible disposal of flame retarded furniture foam

Speaker: Stephen Naylor, PhD, Science and Policy Associate, Green Science Policy Institute Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symp…

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From the Flame Retardant Dilemma to Toxic Hot Seat

Speaker: Kirby Walker, Director and Producer of Toxic Hot Seat Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time F…

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Why are some groups pushing for new fire standards now?

Speaker: Donald Lucas, PhD, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time…

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Fire safety without harm: New California flammability standards

Speaker: Arlene Blum, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Chemistry, UC Berkeley, Green Science Policy Institute Event Flame Retardant Dil…

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Flammability standard challenges in California and beyond

Speaker: Veena Singla, Green Science Policy Institute, USA Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & Time Frida…

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The UK furniture flammability regulations: Can they be improved?

Speaker: Terry Edge, Consumer Product Safety, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, UK Event Flame Retardant Dilemma …

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How science can inform flammability standards

Speaker: Arlene Blum, UC Berkeley and Green Science Policy Institute Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium Date & T…

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Canadian flammability standards and INTERFLAME

Speaker: Stuart Harrad, University of Birmingham, UK and Miriam Diamond, University of Toronto, Canada Event Cairns Science a…

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How science can impact flammability standards and regulations: case …

Speaker: Arlene Blum, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Dept. of Chemistry, UC Berkeley Event Cairns Science and Policy of Flame Retarda…

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Business furniture industry manufacturers' perspectives

Speaker: Dave Panning, BIFMA International Event Flame Retardant Dilemma Symposium 2012: Do flame retardants save lives? …

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BFRs, CFRs, PFRs: Where are we with the toxic alphabet soup?

Speaker: Myrto Petreas, Chief, Environmental Chemistry Branch, California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control Event Flame Retar…

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