Toxicity Comes Standard

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By Joe Charbonnet, PhD

BERKELEY, CA—June 16, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to stark health disparities in our communities. Though many factors contribute to high disease burdens for poor people and people of color, older furniture—which is often passed to lower income households—is likely to contain flame retardants that can cause suppressed immune responses, reproductive problems, or cancer. Nearly all furniture made since 2015 does not contain these chemicals. Now a team of researchers has investigated why these chemicals get into households in the first place. The scientists wanted to learn what drives many manufacturers to add flame retardants to their wares, and what causes them to stop.

The surprising motivation for these toxic inclusions? Not fire safety, but meeting flammability regulations that may not even be the best defense against fires. The peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Emerging Contaminants, drew this conclusion based on a comparison of product flammability standards and the use of toxic flame retardants in furniture, building insulation, and electronics. To study how rules that are intended to promote safety incentivize flame retardant use, researchers investigated standards-making processes from local building codes to the International Electrotechnical Commission regulations. They concluded it was rare for a flammability standard to specifically require a chemical, but often regulations subjected products to unrealistic tests that could only be economically met with flame retardants. Materials that could meet standards without added flame retardants were often limited to high-end products. The researchers also found that businesses which profit from the sale of flame retardants were more likely to provide resources for lobbying and testimony in favor of open flame tests.

The analysis showed that banning individual chemicals did little to prevent the inclusion of toxic compounds in products: often manufacturers simply switched to other very similar flame retardant chemicals. But in 2014 when reformed furniture standards could be met without flame retardants, the use of toxic chemicals often decreased, even when the new standard provided a modest increase in fire safety. “We know that smoldering items—like cigarettes—on fabric exteriors are the biggest danger for upholstery fires,” said Dr. Joe Charbonnet, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Green Science Policy Institute. “But until recently, California’s furniture standard test exposed the interior foam material to an open flame. Now the regulation better represents actual fire risks, and manufacturers have largely switched to physical fire barriers and away from toxic chemicals.”

Co-author Dr. Arlene Blum of the University of California, Berkeley Chemistry Department and Green Science Policy Institute added, “Unrealistic open flame standards persist even they do more harm than good. For instance, builders and fire scientists agree that these tests don’t make sense for insulation buried under a foundation, but most building codes require them. It’s almost like the standards are designed to drive the use of flame retardants.”

The research finds that any link between fire safety and regulations that promote flame retardant use is unclear. Many advances in fire safety—including decreased smoking rates, increased smoke detector use, fire safety education, and the advent of self-extinguishing cigarettes—have come without the use of flame retardants. And the use of these chemicals, as in London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze, does not guarantee fire safety.

Manufacturers corroborate the effect the scientists describe. “We always strive to make furniture as safe and healthy as possible for customers and workers,” said David Panning, Technical Director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, in response to the study. “Thanks to better flammability standards the industry delivers fire-safe furniture now mostly without harmful flame retardant chemicals.”

The study also highlighted recent examples of consensus-building that resulted in standards that reduced the use of toxic chemicals without decreasing fire safety. Often these measures gave manufacturers and consumers the choice of whether or not to include flame retardants. “It’s a win-win from a policy perspective,” said Charbonnet. “A lot of lawmakers want common-sense regulations that give businesses more choice. Others want a healthier environment. In places that have reformed their flammability standards, it seems those in charge took a look at this issue and said, ‘Why not both?’ ”

Available for Interviews:

  • Joe Charbonnet, PhD, Green Science Policy Institute/Colorado School of Mines, (352) 275-2569, [email protected]
  • Arlene Blum, PhD, Green Science Policy Institute/UC Berkeley, (510) 919-6363, ar[email protected]
  • Roland Weber, PhD, POPs Environmental Consulting (Germany), +49 (174) 712-5593, [email protected]