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Fire Marshals say focus is on safety

Gary Evans -- Furniture Today, June 9, 2012

WASHINGTON - The National Assn. of State Fire Marshals said it has never promoted the use of harmful chemicals used as fire retardants in upholstery to prevent legislation requiring safe cigarettes, and is more concerned with the results of fire safety than how they are achieved.
     The comments were in written response to recent articles in the Chicago Tribune, which said it obtained documents that showed that a former tobacco executive, Peter Sparber, helped organize the NASFM and steered the organization to request federal regulations that deemed it was more effective for furniture to be fire-safe than cigarettes.
     The Tribune said that the fire marshals mistakenly thought Sparber was doing volunteer work when, for years, he was being paid by the tobacco industry.
     The government has yet to enact a national standard for upholstery, but manufacturers follow voluntary standards established by the Upholstered Furniture Action Council and legislation adopted by California TB (Technical Bulletin) 117, which has become the de facto national standard.
     Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, said last week that its Bureau of Electronics and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation is meeting to assess what fire prevention methods may be best.
     "We are looking at updating TB 117, which is nearly 40 years old and which we recognize is maybe in need of updating given new technical methods, manufacturing methods, etc., etc.," said Heimerich. "We are meeting with stakeholders as part of our investigation to do that and then we will move forward after those meetings are created."
     Heimerich said the bureau won't be tackling the issue of harmful fire retardant chemicals.
     "We don't in any of our standards prescribe how anything is manufactured. What we do is prescribe the flammability (resistance) a piece of furniture must meet. What we're asking questions about right now is whether an open flame test is a realistic test or whether that should be replaced with a smolder test," he said.
     Industry sources said the open flame test is more likely to require chemicals, while the smolder test may rely more on FR barriers, fabrics and manufacturing techniques.
     The fire marshals also said they don't prescribe what materials are used for fire safety as long as they prevent deaths and property damage. Their position is outlined in the following statement prepared for Furniture/Today and printed below in its entirety:
     "Unfortunately, the recent news article in the Chicago Tribune about the use of fire retardants in furniture completely misunderstands and misstates NASFM's position on, and our motives for, trying to reduce upholstered furniture flammability. It also misses the point that during 2005-2009, one in five (19%) home structure fire deaths in the U.S. resulted from fires that began with upholstered furniture. And it makes unfounded assertions that NASFM promotes the use of harmful flame retardants in furniture and has fought against passage of fire safe cigarette legislation when in fact we supported such legislation in Congress and then at the state level.
     "NASFM has long been committed to the concept of ‘safety layering,' because there is no single ‘silver bullet' answer to addressing the fire problem. In this context, safety layering would dictate that both ignition sources (such as cigarettes, candles, lighters and electrical sources) as well as fuel sources (such as upholstered furniture and other flammable products in the home, including building materials) must be addressed and protected or made safer whenever possible.
     "NASFM has advocated for measures to reduce upholstered flammability over the years as an important part of our mission to protect lives, property and the environment from fire. We have not done so to promote specific interest groups, or industries, or to prescribe the use of flame retardants. To the contrary, we will support when possible valid real-world fire safety test methods and standards that measure a product's performance but do not specify how products are made or how the standards are met. Performance standards allow for innovation, improvements and new technology in fire prevention.
     "Nor is it our intent to promote the use of toxic chemicals for fire prevention. Our policy concerning the use of products, including fire retardants, is clear and is on our website. No product should be used for any application if it is demonstrated to cause an unacceptable degree of harm or risk to people or the environment.
     "Finally, the NASFM board of directors has every confidence in the integrity, professionalism and dedication of our current staff to advise our organization to accomplish our mission and improve fire prevention and safety."

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