FR rules face revision
Heath E Combs -- Furniture Today, June 25, 2012
HIGH POINT - Following a recent Chicago Tribune series documenting decades of rulemaking heavily guided by lobbying, rather than sound science, California Gov. Jerry Brown last week directed state agencies to revise the state's decades-old upholstered furniture flammability standard.
But it's hard to say what a new version of the standard, a.k.a. Technical Bulletin 117, might look like.
One big question is whether the reform will do away with the controversial open flame test that in effect has required furniture foam to contain flame retardant chemicals, some of which are now being shown to cause harmful health effects.
A short-term solution could be presented soon in California while a longer term approach is worked out, said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, the trade group of manufacturers, importers and suppliers. The California State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials will hold an informational hearing on the topic this Tuesday, June 26.
Counts said the AHFA recently met with Tonya Blood, acting chief of the state's Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation, which is likely to take the lead in the revision.
Revision of TB 117 was a priority for Blood even before Gov. Brown's announcement last week, Counts said. Her staff has been working on ideas for the rule.
With Brown weighing in on the issue, Counts said he expects a move out of the "chemical usage business" quickly.
"Based on Gov. Brown's statement I would expect them to move away from FR chemistry in the short term and then possibly create a mechanism for identifying safe and effective FR chemicals," he said.
While nothing is certain, that could mean that California temporarily goes to a smolder test rather than an open flame test, like the furniture industry's UFAC approach. The Upholstered Furniture Action Council, formed in 1978, created a voluntary upholstery construction standard designed to make furniture resistant to cigarette ignition by stopping the spread of smoldering.
If flame retardant chemicals aren't used in furniture foams, then fabric barriers may be sought to address the FR issue - a potential burden for the furniture industry, especially if enclosed barriers are required for furniture foam.
"We're talking about double upholstering," Counts said. "We're not aware of a lot of barriers that could be used on furniture at this point."
He said another big concern is that California officials will rely on their experience with mattresses to guide what happens in upholstery.
The problem, he said, is that a mattress has a different shape and construction materials than a furniture piece. A mattress is a horizontal slab that can be enclosed in a barrier, like putting a sock around it and sewing it up, Counts said. Fire naturally rises vertically, and is less likely to spread horizontally. That makes passing those testing methods easier for mattresses than for upholstery, which has many vertical surfaces, he said.
Also, for barriers that have been developed to suit California's TB 113 for hotels or certain British flammability standards, fabric choices make upholstered furniture noticeably less comfortable.
"It'll be interesting to see what kind of barriers come out of our suppliers if we move in that direction," Counts said.
As California reopens the FR case, the Polyurethane Foam Assn. is continuing to ask for what it did three years ago: temporary suspension of the state's small open flame requirement for resilient filling materials until more information is available on technologies and chemicals used to meet it, according to Robert Luedeka, the group's executive director.
Nationally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a national flammability rule for upholstery since 2008. Counts said the proposed CPSC standard looks to fire blocking barriers if the cover fabric doesn't resist smolder ignition - but the existence of suitable barriers remains questionable, he said.
Under the proposed rule a manufacturer or importer would have to choose whether to use a smoldering or open flame test. Products would have to be labeled to show which compliance test is met.
This year, the CPSC's efforts have been aimed at developing reproducible testing methods with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, officials with the agency said.
"One of our stated goals for the proposed rule was that it provided safety without relying on FR chemical additives, and I think that's the thrust of what's going on out there (in California) too," said CPSC official Dale Ray, former project manager for the agency's upholstered furniture rule. Rik Khanna is now managing the project.
The AHFA's Counts said he's not expecting imminent action from the CPSC on the national upholstery FR rule since developing a reliable, reproducible test has been difficult.
If barriers eventually become the main compliance option, it could be challenging for the industry, he added.
"We're going to want to see what they have in mind, how are those barriers applied," Counts said. "Do we have to use fire resistant threads, Kevlar, to sew these barriers onto the sofa or chair?"
Meanwhile, a group of environmental and health advocates in California met in San Francisco last week and called TB 117 obsolete and ineffective, saying it also contributes to cancer and other health risks.
In a webinar, a key opponent of FR chemicals, Dr. Arlene Blum, said that studies from 1980 to 1999 show that legislation requiring open flame testing hasn't reduced the number of deaths, which "remains significantly the same." She said there are about 100 deaths nationwide related to open flame causes like matches, lighters and candles, with only about 10 in California, so the tradeoff from dangerous chemicals isn't worth it.
More upholstery fires are caused by smoldering cigarettes than open flame, she said, adding the open flame law requires upholstery foam to resist burning for 14 seconds "but fabric is the first thing to burn and sets the foam on fire. That gives us a couple more seconds than if there wasn't any (FR chemicals) but emits smoke and soot which provides more toxic gases."
Blum, a chemist and visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Green Science Policy Institute, led the successful efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to ban the FR chemicals brominated and chlorinated tris phosphate (Tris) from children's sleepwear. She said Tris is the major component of FR chemicals used in furniture.
Also in the webinar, retired firefighter Tony Stefani, founder of a firefighters' cancer prevention organization, said firefighters showed a higher incidence of cancers than the general population, especially bladder, kidney cancers and breast cancers.
"We don't see how fire retardants have helped but they have been detrimental to our health," he said.
David Levine, CEO and founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, said that a poll by Lake Research showed that 75% of 500 small business owners want to know what chemicals are in products they sell, and 93% said they would like to move away from chemicals like fire retardants. Since consumers are demanding safer products, businesses could profit from such a policy, he said.