• Cindy W. Hodnett

California revises controversial upholstery flammability standards

BERKELY, Calif. — California has revised its controversial Technical Bulletin 117 and adopted a new flammability standard that should allow producers to make furniture and baby products that do not contain flame retardant chemicals beginning Jan. 1.

California Gov. Jerry Brown announced on Thursday that the modification to the state's flammability standards for upholstered furniture was the "culmination of the administration's year-long effort to modernize the standards and reduce Californian's exposure to harmful flame retardant chemicals." Read the online report here.

"Today, California is curbing toxic chemicals found in everything from high chairs to sofas," said Brown. "These new standards will keep the furniture in our homes fire-safe and limit unnecessary exposure to flame retardants."

Beginning Jan. 1, manufacturers may begin manufacturing to the new standards, according to the governor's office. They will have a year to complete the transition and must come into full mandatory compliance on Jan. 1, 2015.

The standards, crafted based on a comprehensive review, statewide workshops and public comment, can be read in full here.

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. An investigative series in the Chicago Tribune examined the efficacy and safety of the flame retardants and prompted a review of the TB 117 standard, which used an open flame flammability test.

The new standard eliminates the open flame test for filling materials and focuses on smoldering sources of flammability including cigarettes, space heaters and extension cords. It also addresses upholstery cover fabrics and requires the use of barrier materials with smolder-prone materials and tests the interactions of all the materials that go into a piece of upholstered furniture.

According to Brown's office, a number of manufacturers have already stated that under the new standards, they will no longer have to use flame retardants, and will either meet the requirements through the use of more smolder-resistant cover fabrics or smolder-resistant barriers beneath the cover fabrics.

"The previous standards focused predominantly on filling materials, where fires don't actually start," said Tonya Blood, Chief of the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. "The new standards were developed to address where the fire begins, which is the cover fabric, and to focus on the interactions of the cover fabric and filling materials."

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.

"After seven years of hard work for healthy furniture and baby products, we are overjoyed with the new standard, TB117-2013," said Dr. Arlene Blum, visiting scholar in chemistry, UC Berkeley and executive director of the Institute. "Flame retardants will no longer be needed in furniture and we will all be healthier as a result."

"The evaluation of the fire safety benefits of the old California furniture flammability standard TB117 is simple - there are no benefits," said Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, a fire scientist of Fire Science and Technology Inc. in a statement released by the Policy Institute. Babrauskas' research showed that adding flame retardants to furniture to meet the TB117 standard did not prevent ignition nor reduce the severity of a fire.

"With this excellent new regulation, we can expect that furniture fire deaths in California will continue to decrease and the health of the people of California will be protected." Babruaskas said. "The state of California is to be congratulated for refocusing its furniture regulation to where the fire safety problems are significant, that is smoking and smoldering fires."


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