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

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flickr @ donnierayjonesPerhaps 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 retardants in furniture and baby products for 38 years finally changed. And perhaps, full of excitement, you rushed to the store that very day, looking forward to buying a flame retardant-free couch or chair.

Unfortunately, things have proved to be a bit more complicated.

Under the new California furniture flammability standard, called TB117-2013, furniture foam is no longer subject to the open flame test that led to the use of harmful flame retardants. However, furniture fabric must pass a smolder test. An estimated 85% of all fabric on the market already should pass that test, but the details of what the new test is and how to meet it are still somewhat unclear. Optimistic furniture manufacturers have said they will have this all sorted out in… several months.

To make matters worse, the flame retardant manufacturer Chemtura is suing the State of California for allegedly decreased fire safety and harm to their sales of flame retardant chemicals as a result of the new flammability standard. However, science has shown that flame retardants added to foam at the level needed to meet TB117 are ineffective at preventing real furniture fires. By requiring a smolder test, TB117-2013 will stop fires where they start – in the fabric—and provide greater fire safety than TB117. That is, once manufacturers can figure out how to comply with it…

Despite the confusion, TB117-2013 brought about a very important change: manufacturers do not need to add flame retardants to furniture or baby product foam. Now, it is up to consumers to tell furniture manufacturers and retailers that they care about what’s in their couches and chairs, and that they want fire safe furniture without flame retardants.

Flame retardant chemicals added to furniture foam at the levels previously used will not help pass TB117-2013, nor will they increase fire safety. However, TB117-2013 is not a ban on the use of flame retardants, and the TB117-2013 label does not mean furniture is flame retardant-free. It is up to consumers to ask for furniture without added flame retardant chemicals.

If you want safer furniture, go to your local retailer and ask for TB117-2013 furniture without added flame retardants. You might have to wait a few more months to see it in stores, but the more consumers ask for it, the sooner manufacturers will begin to produce flame retardant-free furniture!

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