Senators enter FR debate
Heath E Combs -- Furniture Today, July 23, 2012
WASHINGTON - Upholstered furniture safety was the center of a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing last week.
The hearing came in the wake of a recent series in the Chicago Tribune sparked national attention with its portrayal of three decades of furniture flammability rulemaking as guided more by chemical and tobacco industry lobbying than sound science.
Federal agency officials said at the hearing that to keep consumers safe, they need special authority to act more quickly when major consumer product issues arise. They also want greater ability to assess chemicals of concern than they currently have.
For furniture makers, the hearing centered on a national rule, which several in Congress have noted as particularly bogged down in rulemaking procedure even as public concern over safety rises.
Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, recommended to the subcommittee the CPSC immediately adopt ASTM 1353. That's essentially a codified version of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council standard, a voluntary upholstery construction standard designed to make furniture resistant to cigarette ignition by stopping the spread of smoldering. Most furniture manufacturers have followed the standard for years.
The CPSC is in its fourth year of an upholstered furniture flammability rulemaking process. It has been bogged down in efforts to find repeatable testing methods.
In his testimony, Counts noted that CPSC statistics show that 90% of upholstered furniture fires result from smolder ignition - like a cigarette dropped on a sofa - rather than ignition by open flames. ASTM 1353 would address the fire risk by using a smolder test, he said.
Another type of testing, in which furniture components are exposed to an open flame, is used in the decades-old rule that have become the de facto national FR standard for upholstered furniture, California's Technical Bulletin 117. To pass that test, foam in furniture must contain flame retardant chemicals.
That rule has been scrutinized as reports over the past decade have shown toxic chemicals in flame retardants may cause neurological and reproductive damage, reduced fertility, and in firefighters, elevated rates of cancer.
A recent series in the Chicago Tribune portrayed the rulemaking as guided more by chemical and tobacco industry lobbying than sound science. Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown directed state agencies to revise TB 117.
Acting quickly, the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has released a draft copy of TB 117-2012 with proposed requirements, test procedure and apparatus for testing smolder resistance of upholstered furniture.
The bureau has scheduled a series of workshops later this month to discuss the rule.
At the hearing in Washington, Counts said adoption of ASTM 1353 would give the CPSC time to investigate the feasibility of its proposed barrier - an FR material between fabric and foam.
Reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act is one of the issues outlined in the American Home Furnishings Alliance's current legislative and regulatory issues. TSCA reform legislation, introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., aims to ensure that risks from chemicals used in commerce are adequately understood.
Counts said the AHFA supports TSCA reform but there are some issues with the legislation it could not embrace. "We support a mechanism to help us identify safe and effective chemistry," he said.
"In many countries around the world chemicals are required to be tested but not in the United States. That's because a 35-year-old law that's supposed to protect and assess against health risks is broken," Lautenberg said at the hearing. "Today we're examining a prime example of why our system for regulating chemicals needs to be updated."
James J. Jones, an acting assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, testified that the EPP is developing a strategy to address the risks of a broad set of flame retardant chemicals. That effort is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012.
But he said the Toxic Substances Control Act doesn't give the agency enough tools to act quickly to assess risks of chemicals and to take effective action after they circulate.
He said that since the TSCA became law in 1976, the agency has only been able to require testing of 200 of 84,000 chemicals in commerce listed in its TSCA inventory.
CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said in her testimony that an amendment to the Flammable Fabrics Act could allow for expedited consideration of proposed furniture flammability rules.
Under that act, the CPSC can issue mandatory flammability standards. But it requires detailed onerous findings before a final rule can be issued - that benefits from a regulation bear a reasonable relationship to costs, and that a regulation be the least burdensome alternative.
When Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 - in the wake of several recalls of tainted pet food and children's toys with high lead content - it allowed the commission to "expeditiously adopt standards" protecting young children and infants from consumer product risks, Tenenbaum said.
"I believe an amendment to the FFA permitting this type of flexibility for rules regarding flammability of upholstered furniture would be very helpful and may allow for expedited consideration of the proposed rules," she testified.