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Speak up now on FR rule, California official urges

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Furniture makers should speak up now if they have concerns with California's new upholstered flammability rule, a top California official told an industry audience here last week.

Tonya Blood, chief of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, spoke at the American Home Furnishings Alliance's Sustainability Summit.

She said the overhaul of California's Technical Bulletin 117 - which started last summer after a directive from Gov. Jerry Brown - is proceeding quickly. A draft proposal would change TB117 to require a smolder-only test to determine whether upholstery fabrics are safe enough.

Many anticipate that without the current open flame test requirement, the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture foam will cease.

The draft released this month is patterned after ASTM E-1353-08a, which is based on the Upholstered Furniture Action Council method. The test shifts the emphasis from foam to seat coverings.

The rule was released on Feb. 8, marking the start of a six-week written comment period ending March 26, when the BHFTI will hold a hearing and accept public comments. The agency will review comments in April. Blood said she anticipates an additional 15-day comment period possibly in May or June.

"Once it is adopted, that's it. So your questions really need to be answered now and not at the point when it's adopted," Blood said. "Really think about the proposal, look at it and make the comments and work with your association if that's what you wish to do on your comments."

Blood said the agency has thus far received about 3,000 comments from consumers who support having the option to buy furniture without flame retardants.

Blood spoke about why the agency is moving to a smolder standard. In TB-117's 38-year life, the BHFTI found that while foam can be fire resistant when it's bare, it doesn't perform as well in an upholstered piece of furniture, she said. Fire begins with cover fabrics, so that's where the bureau is focusing its efforts, she said.

She said U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission data indicated the fatality rate in smoking-related fires was seven times greater than in non-smoking related fires, and the injury rate in the former was triple that of the latter.

"Smoking materials still remain the leading cause and the greatest risk factor of upholstered furniture fires and losses today," Blood said.

She also said the bureau began looking at cover fabrics because CPSC research indicated that flame retardant-treated foam increased the damage to cover fabrics from a smoldering cigarette, relative to untreated foam.
"This was key for us to say there seems to be a conflict," she said.

She said that the CPSC also found no significant difference between flame retardant foam treated to pass TB 117 and untreated foam.

Blood noted that the BHFTI does not regulate chemicals nor does it test for them. The bureau's only role is to create a flammability standard for fire safety, she said.

While the ASTM standard doesn't have a pass/fail criterion, the BHFTI had to create that methodology since it is also responsible for enforcement.

"What you use, that's between you and other regulators and government. That is not what my bureau does, nor will we be getting into that. We test it for the flammability and as it relates to our performance standard," Blood said.

She said that many manufacturers have indicated they may choose to not use flame retardants.
"I'm not here to say what the efficacy of what flame retardants are, if they're harmful or not. That is a debate to live on in someone else's arena," Blood said.

But, she said, the BHFTI wanted to make sure the standard is flexible enough to use other products or technologies to comply with it. Blood noted she was able to visit many upholstery and foam manufacturers.

"Everybody does things a little different, but I can appreciate the fact that it is complex," Blood said. "They work very fast and it's an amazing process that you guys go through to make furniture."

She said the bureau's confidence in the ASTM consensus standard stemmed from its large range of stakeholders and their broad support among industry suppliers.

The new rule does not mandate testing or recordkeeping, only that products pass the standard. Enforcement will follow if they don't, she said.

Blood also noted that the BHFTI hasn't been in communication with the CPSC - which is working on a national upholstered furniture FR rule - since congressional hearings last summer on furniture flammability.

"They told me ... this is California's problem, you can fix the problem. That was the last communication I had with CPSC," Blood said.

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