In the midst of increasing information about the ubiquity of our exposure to industrial flame retardants, the revision of a 40-year-old furniture flammability standard in California last month could dramatically reduce the amount of flame retardants added to foam-filled furniture in the future. As reported in the Chicago Tribune:
“For decades, U.S. manufacturers have filled upholstered furniture with pounds of toxic chemicals to comply with a flammability standard set by a single state, California. The obscure rule, known as Technical Bulletin 117, brought flame retardants into homes across the country. American babies came to be born with the highest recorded average concentrations of the chemicals among any infants in the world. But [last month], California threw out the 38-year-old rule and approved a new one that furniture manufacturers can meet without using flame retardants.”
Under the old standard, upholstered furniture sold in California had to meet an open flame test, which required that it withstand ingnition from direct contact with an open flame for a certain number of seconds. With furniture filled with inherently flammable polystyrene foam, meeting that standard required the use of chemical flame retardants.
The new standard abandons the open flame test, and instead requires that upholstered furniture resist ignition from smoldering objects on the surface, a much more common cause of fires. California’s new standard can be readily met with surface treatments and physical barriers. It gives manufacturers the option of meeting the standard without using chemicals, although chemicals are still permitted. As it’s phased in over the next year, it will be up to consumers to learn how products are meeting the new standard.
We will have to ask our retailers: Are you meeting the California flammability standard with chemicals in foam (i.e., business as usual)? Or are you meeting the standard through physical barriers instead? Flame retardant chemicals are linked with health problems such as decreased fertility, birth defects, neurological problems, and hyperactivity. They are added in prodigious amounts to upholstered furniture, crib mattresses, electronics, and building insulation.
And they are found in the bodies of virtually all Americans. Because flame retardant chemicals persist in the environment, this new standard does not solve the problem of how we are going to dispose safely of all the chemical-laden furniture already in our homes, schools, and offices. Nor does it address the liberal use of these chemicals in electronics and building insulation. But at least it provides an opening for manufacturers to take flame retardant chemicals out of new upholstered products. And I, for one, will be demanding that they do, for the sake of my children’s health.