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 of harmful flame retardant chemicals in consumer products while continuing a high standard of fire safety. First, California’s Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) received a much-needed update in 2013 and is now in effect across the state. Second, California Assembly Bill 127 (AB127) generated a discussion of the validity of building insulation flammability standards that continues into the new year and could allow for fewer flame retardants in plastic foam building insulation materials.
California’s furniture flammability standard, TB117, has led to widespread use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture foam since it was introduced in 1975. The governor’s office announced an updated version of this regulation in November 2013 (called TB117-2013) that uses a smolder standard rather than an open flame standard for upholstered furniture. The smolder standard will work to stop fires where they start—on the fabric covering furniture foam. Using foam with added flame retardant chemicals will not help furniture pass this new standard.
TB117-2013 can be met without the use of added flame retardant chemicals, and will improve fire safety for upholstered items. It took effect on January 1, 2014, with mandatory compliance by January 1, 2015. However, TB117-2013 does not ban flame retardant chemicals, so it is important that consumers both:
- Check for a TB117-2013 tag on new furniture items
- Verify with the retailer or manufacturer that furniture is flame retardant-free.
Consumer pressure will be an important force in changing manufacturing practices and foam formulations.
More information about the new TB117-2013 standard can be found here.
Signed into law in October 2013, AB127 requires the state fire marshal, in consultation with the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation, to re-examine building flammability standards for plastic foam insulation while ensuring that fire safety is maintained. If it is found that current standards can only be met with added flame retardant chemicals, but that the presence of these chemicals does not contribute to fire safety, an update may be proposed. This could give manufacturers and builders flexibility to make fire-safe buildings without using flame retarded foam insulation.
Research shows that the addition of flame retardants to building insulation foam does not improve fire safety when that insulation is used behind a thermal barrier (as is already required for inhabited spaces) or below grade, such as between the ground and a cement slab. For these applications, the ability to meet fire codes without the use of potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals would be a tremendous benefit to the health of the planet, and to people like manufacturers, builders, and firefighters who have repeated exposure to these materials.
Information on GSP’s work to reduce flame retardant chemicals in buildings can be found here.
While the issue of flame retardant chemicals in our homes and environments is far from resolved, these recent policy changes allow California to lead the way toward healthier fire safety. It was a big year, and 2014 should be no different.