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Publicity heats up FR debate

HIGH POINT - A new round of national publicity on flame retardant chemicals in furniture could spark fresh debate in the longs moldering issue.
     In a four-part series earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune suggested that the FR chemicals used in products such as upholstered furniture foam may be more harmful than beneficial.
     Sources told the Tribune that it's possible the chemicals could have negative effects on health if they build up in the body, but that in the quantities used in furniture, they are ineffective in preventing or significantly delaying fires. Other news outlets, including NPR, also picked up the story.
     Furniture manufacturers and trade association officials, some of whom have been working on the FR issue for decades, said much of what the Tribune reported was already widely known in the industry. Still, many welcome any new look at whether FR laws and regulations take the best approach and are effectively enforced.
     After the series ran, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., demanded answers from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, urging them to act to get rid of chemicals that pose health risks but don't ward off fire, the Tribune reported.
     For those whose involvement in flammability rules spans decades, the Tribune series was no revelation, although it did compile what many already knew.
     "There weren't a whole lot of surprises in it. They're things we've dealt with over the years," said Robert Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Assn., a trade group representing producers of the foam, which must include chemicals to meet the FR code in California, which most manufacturers follow. "We're aware of a lot of this activity and have spoken about it many times, in terms of strange anomalies in data and things like that."
     Semi-retired since 2000 and better known as Joe Z to the industry, Joe Ziolkowski, executive director of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council or UFAC, reiterated those comments.
     "It's nothing new really. It's the first time it's gotten the kind of play that it has. The (connection between) Pete Sparber and the State Fire Marshals Assn. is old," Ziolkowski said.
     Sparber is a former tobacco executive who helped organize the National Assn. of State Fire Marshals and served as a legislative consultant and executive board member for the group, according to the Chicago Tribune series. The series implies that Sparber was hired by tobacco firms to use the fire marshals group to refocus the flammability safety debate from cigarettes to furniture.
     "In regards to taking the heat off the cigarettes, (Sparber) did what he was basically told to do. He took the heat off the cigarettes and tried to put the heat on the furniture manufacturers," Ziolkowski said.
     UFAC, formed in 1978, is a voluntary upholstery construction standard designed to make furniture more resistant to cigarette ignition by stopping the spread of smoldering.
     Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, representing furniture manufacturers and importers, said some of the issues raised by the Tribune have been known in flammability circles but hadn't made the mainstream media.
     "It's some pretty good inside baseball as far as the approach that the chemical industry has taken and cigarette industry has taken to this issue," Counts said.
     He said AHFA officials met two weeks ago with Tonya Blood, the recently appointed acting chief of the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation in California, which enforces the state's furniture FR standard, known as TB 117. Blood's appointment must still be confirmed by the state senate.
     "Obviously this Tribune article and other efforts within the California assembly to change 117 are on the top of her radar screen. She just started so she's trying to get her hands around all the issues and talk with all the stakeholders," Counts said.
     TB 117 requires open flame and cigarette testing of foams used in upholstered furniture. Critics of the law argue that the tests can't be passed unless flame retardant chemicals are used.
     While efforts to change TB 117 have come up short in recent years - Counts said reports indicate that the chemical industry spent about $23 million lobbying against assembly bills that eliminate some chemicals in the 117 standards - the AHFA has been telling its chemical supplier members that they're losing the battle in the court of public opinion. He said the chemical industry must come up with safer alternatives.
     "I believe California's looking at making some kind of change in the not too distant future to the 117 standard," Counts said.
     Rob Luce, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based upholstery producer Lazar Inds., said he has seen stories about the FR issue "come and go" in the 25 years he has been involved in the business.
     "My feeling is that you have a few people who get concerned over flammability. But I think today people are more concerned about the off-gassing of glues or materials in the fabric and foam and how that might relate to their health than they are the rare occurrence that (upholstery) could catch on fire," he said.
     Jeff Baron, a former Natuzzi and DeCoro executive and now an industry consultant, said he was concerned about the implications of the Chicago Tribune series.
     "I think as an American, we would like to believe our country doesn't run this way," he said. "Before I started to think about the business implications, I started thinking that if what is written in that article is really true, we should be concerned about what happened.... It's really shameful, it's absolutely shameful."
     Baron also said he was concerned about the potential impact on product sales, particularly among consumers who have read the series.
     "The consumer now has another reason not to buy furniture," he said, adding with a touch of sarcasm, "which is wonderful for us. What our industry doesn't need now is another reason for the consumer to continue to postpone the purchase of furniture."
     Ben Nielsen, owner of upholstery producer Cambridge of California and a member California Furniture Manufacturers Assn.'s board, said the series offered a comprehensive overview of the flammability issue.
     "The article itself, after many, many years, got all the facts on the table of who the players were," he said. "We always thought that behind the scenes, there were different people involved - the chemical people, the tobacco people, fire marshals - it got all the facts on the table."
     He said the series also calls to mind the back and forth debate that has occurred over the years relating to TB-117 since its enactment in 1975. One proposal to remove the chemicals would have required the industry to make upholstery with a barrier cloth, which would in turn add significantly to the cost of finished goods, Nielsen said.
     "It has to be cut and sewn and upholstered twice," he said.
     Nielsen said he supports a national furniture flammability standard so there is a fair playing field for all manufacturers.
     He also supports more aggressive efforts to alert consumers - including having hangtags on every piece of upholstery shipped - about the dangers of upholstery catching fire due to cigarettes, candles and matches. The CFMA currently sells such hangtags to its membership.
     "We support the individual manufacturer alerting consumers to the potential problems," said CFMA President Brian Edwards, who also is president of case goods and upholstery manufacturer Fairmont Designs. "We provide the tools and hopefully the insight to our members to protect themselves."

     Senior Editor Gary Evans and Associate Editor Thomas Russell contributed to this story.

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