Flame Retardants in Furniture


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


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.


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.


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.


Press: Flame Retardants in Furniture

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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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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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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Science & Policy Blog: Flame Retardants in Furniture

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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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Presentations: Flame Retardants in Furniture

Open Flame Regulations and the Furniture Industry - Another Challeng…

Speaker: Dave Panning, MS, MBA Technical Director, Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) Event…

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Constructing Chemical Groups for Biomonitoring in California

Speaker: Gail Krowech, PhD Staff Toxicologist, CA Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Event Beyond the Flame Re…

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Issues around Flame Retardants in Furniture in the European Union

Speaker: Roberta Dessi, LLM Secretary General, European Furniture Industries Confederation (EFIC) Event Beyond the Flame Ret…

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Healthier Furniture: Chemical Classes of Concern

Speaker: Arlene Blum, Visiting Scholar, University of California at Berkeley and Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute [toggle header="More about this even…

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Environmental exposures and health impacts of fluorinated chemicals

Speakers: Christopher Lau, PhD and Andrew Lindstrom, PhD, Lead Research Biologist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA); Scientist, US EPA [toggle header="More…

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Health and environmental impacts of antimicrobials

Speaker: Laura Geer, Associate Professor, Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, State University of New York, Downstate School of Public Health [toggle header="…

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Kaiser Permanente's Health and Wellness Strategy: Avoiding Chemicals…

Speaker: Jennifer MacDaniel, Project Principal, Kaiser Permanente Event BIFMA Healthy Furniture Workshop: An Investigation in…

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What designers need: A restorative material economy

Speaker: Robin Guenther, Principal, Perkins + Will Event BIFMA Healthy Furniture Workshop: An Investigation into Stain-Repell…

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Technical solutions: What’s needed now and possible future alternati…

Speaker: Machell Apple, Director, New Development Initiatives, Victor Group Event BIFMA Healthy Furniture Workshop: An Invest…

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EWG action on stain-repellants and antimicrobials

Speaker: David Andrews, Senior Scientist, Environmental Working Group Event BIFMA Healthy Furniture Workshop: An Investigatio…

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Healthier Hospitals

Speaker: Tracey Eastbrooke, Environmental Health Director, Health Care Without Harm Event BIFMA Healthy Furniture Workshop: A…

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Fire Safety Without Harm: California's Changing Flammability Regulat…

Speaker: Arlene Blum, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Chemistry, UCB; Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute, Berkeley, CA USA [toggle header="More about this even…

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