• Cindy W. Hodnett

Industry reacts to new California flammability standards

A new California flammability standardA new California flammability standard, TB117-2013, allows suppliers to manufacture upholstery without flame-retardant treated foam. HBO’s “Toxic Hot Seat” documentary aired on Nov. 25 and explored the existing TB-117 standard.
BERKELEY, Calif. - The reaction was immediate. The minute Gov. Jerry Brown announced new flammability standards for the state of California, upholstery vendors and industry experts began weighing in on the implications of Technical Bulletin 117-2013.
    Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, manufacturers will now be able to produce upholstered furniture without flame-retardant foam.
    TB 117-2013 also addresses the requirements, test procedures and apparatus for testing the smolder resistance of materials used in upholstered furniture, but does not immediately ban flame-retardant chemicals.
     Although specific to California, many manufacturers use that state's standards for all upholstery to avoid producing multiple inventories.
     "While we have expected this change for some time, we are not in a position to say what impact, if any, it will have on our business," said Al Wiygul, CEO of American Furniture Mfg. "That being said, we would be in favor of using foam with no FR chemicals for a lot of different reasons."
     The adoption of TB 117 in 1975 mandated the use of flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture and baby product foam in the U.S. and Canada. The new standard eliminates the open flame test for filling materials and focuses on testing of smoldering sources of flammability for upholstery cover fabrics, barrier materials, resilient filling materials and decking materials.
     Wiygul said that opinions vary as to whether the current non-FR foam will pass the new smolder test, adding that compliance in California "is always a moving target."
     "My expectations are that, as usual, this will drive the cost of goods in California to be higher than the rest of the country," he said. "We are in touch with our poly suppliers to get definitive answers as we speak, but until such time as we can have definitive proof of passing the smolder test, we will continue to use FR foam in California."
     AICO's Vice President of Soft Lines Merchandising Laurie Phillips said that multiple components are affected by the new standards, adding that an immediate reaction to the change would be "premature" because "decisions and interactions at many levels, including upholstery manufacturers, foam manufacturers, fabric mills, etc." must first occur.
     "CA TB 117-2013 requires compliance to FR cover fabric and/or barrier fabrics, period," Phillips said. "That may mean we have to find either cover or barrier fabrics that are inherently flame retardant with no chemicals, or continue using components with FR chemicals to be compliant."
     Phillips said AICO is currently contacting mills to determine if they will make and test future fabrics to comply with the new standard.
     "If they do, costs will increase," she said. "On the other hand, if foam no longer uses FR chemicals, foam costs could come down slightly. All in all, it could be a wash."
     Furniture flame retardants are associated with cancer, endocrine disruption, reduced IQ, infertility, birth defects, neurological impairments and other health problems, according to the Green Science Policy Institute, which provided scientific expertise to state agencies involved with the standard change.
     "It astounds me that the chemical companies are still claiming there is no health benefit to removing these chemicals," said Dr. Arlene Blum, visiting scholar in chemistry, UC Berkeley and executive director of the Institute.
     The American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance issued a statement opposing the revised standards immediately following the announcement from the governor's office.
     "Families in California should have serious concerns that state officials are lowering fire standards and removing an important layer of fire protection that has benefitted Californians for more than 35 years," said Steve Risotto, senior director of NAFRA, in the statement. "Statistics demonstrate that fires and fire deaths declined in California since the fire safety standards were implemented as part of TB 117, which would explain why a number of respected organizations, like the National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters Laboratories, have submitted comments to California state government opposing this change."
     The American Home Furnishings Alliance has launched a new web site (www.toxic-hot-seat.com) to address consumers' frequently asked questions about upholstered furniture flammability. The new site corresponds with the Nov. 25 airing of "Toxic Hot Seat," an HBO documentary about the TB 117 standard.
     "California's action last week will result in many furniture manufacturers choosing to eliminate flame retardant chemicals from their upholstered furniture, and that move will be welcomed by furniture shoppers who are concerned about potentially toxic chemicals in everyday home products," said AHFA CEO Andy Counts.
     "However, we can't forget that proponents of the original TB 117 spent more than three decades telling Americans that flame-retardant chemicals were necessary for fire safety," Counts continued. "As recently as 2004, two U.S. furniture manufacturers paid substantial out-of-court settlements in lawsuits filed by burn victims who claimed their furniture was flawed because it did not contain FR chemicals. As a result, some manufacturers may not yet be convinced that their liability is greater with the chemicals than without them."
     Don Coleman, president of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council, said that UFAC applauded California for revising the flammability standard. Manufacturers following the UFAC standard are responsible for 80 percent of the dollar volume spent on upholstered furniture in the U.S., according to UFAC representatives.
     "Thirty-five years ago, UFAC developed construction guidelines for making furniture more resistant to smolder ignition, and California's new standard draws heavily from that work," Coleman said in a statement. "Our team was in Washington, D.C. just last week meeting with Consumer Product Safety Commission officials, as we continue to advocate a federal flammability guideline based on the proven UFAC standard."
     And while implementation of the new standard will be done in incremental stages for some upholstery sources, others are already preparing for, and agreeing with, the revision.
     "If all fabrics can pass the cigarette smolder test, then the foam does not need the chemicals," said Lazar Industries President and CEO Rob Luce. "We are prepared to make the switch to the new regulations within 10 business days of the law taking effect."
     Natuzzi Group officials said the company is prepared to make the transition to meet the new standard as well.
    "Natuzzi was aware of the new regulations introduced by California and we are quite on track to meet the deadline," a company official said. "Regulations are key to protect people's health and our environment. Therefore, we agree with these new standards. In terms of additional costs, this is a marginal element compared to the benefits."
     At upholstery source Craft-master Furniture, President Roy Calcagne said preparations are already underway to meet the new standards.
     "We have already contacted our foam suppliers to transition out of the CA TB 117 requirement," Calcagne said. "We will change all of our foam components so they do not have the fire retardant materials as required previously."
     Calcagne said he did not anticipate any significant cost impact, adding, "We will comply with the new requirements as mandated by law. I think the fewer chemicals, the better."

Cindy HodnettCindy W. Hodnett | Upholstery/Style Editor

As the Upholstery/Style Editor for Furniture/Today, I spend my work hours studying the sloping curves of sofa frames, the intricacies of fabric and the nail head trim and button accents that function as jewelry on a piece of upholstery. I research the companies that bring these things together for retailers, and ultimately consumers, and interview industry leaders about their business strategies and where they think furniture is heading in the future. And when traveling, I provide a sneak peek at what I'm seeing, whether at international markets or in High Point or Las Vegas.

I look forward to sharing what I see and I hope you'll feel free to do the same. Email me at chodnett@furnituretoday.com or follow me on Twitter @CynthiaWHodnett.


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