California unveiled a proposal on Friday that would transform its controversial fire safety standards by dropping a requirement that has led to widespread use of flame retardants in U.S. couches and other furniture.
The current standard, adopted in the 1970s, mandates that foam used in furniture cushions must withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. As a result, manufacturers throughout the nation have been adding brominated or chlorinated chemicals to the foam to slow the spread of flames.
Under the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, a state agency released a new draft rule on Friday morning that will eliminate the open-flame test. Instead, state officials say they will require a smolder-only test, which manufacturers could meet without flame retardants while still preventing fires.
Over the past several years, concern about the chemicals has mounted as evidence points to an array of potential health effects, including reduced IQs, attention problems and other neurological effects in children exposed in the womb or during infancy. The chemicals have been building up in human bodies, including breast milk, around the world.
The new draft is in response to a directive issued by Brown to improve fire safety while reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. Smoldering objects such as cigarettes, heaters and extension cords, rather than open flames, are the biggest source of household fires.
"This [proposal] will provide consumers with a more realistic approach to fire safety in addition to reducing the upholstered furniture’s smolder ignition potential," according to the state's overview of the proposed changes. "As an added benefit, this regulatory proposal significantly reduces or eliminates manufacturers’ reliance on materials treated with flame retardant chemicals. It is the Bureau’s understanding that many manufacturers, who are no longer compelled to make materials open-flame resistant, will no longer use flame retardant chemicals in their products. Manufacturers would instead be able to purchase and use the less expensive non-flame retardant materials therefore saving in material costs."
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) called the administration's move "enormous" given the Legislature’s "inability due to the power of the chemical industry to move in this direction.” He sponsored a bill to curb the use of flame retardant chemicals in consumer products, but it died in committee.
Chemical companies have said that flame retardants are safe and that they are necessary to prevent dangerous fires from igniting furniture.
“Regrettably, if this proposed regulation moves forward, it will reverse a fire safety standard that has provided an important layer of protection to Californians for over 35 years," said a spokesperson from the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. "Since the National Fire Protection Association reports that open flame sources are still a major cause of upholstered furniture fires, regulators in California should propose a standard that addresses this fire safety risk."
The proposal will go through a six-week public comment period before a final standard is adopted by the state agency.
Because California is such a large market for furniture, the original standard, known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), created a de facto standard across the United States that led to use of flame retardants in most furniture cushions.
The new tests would involve mockups of cushions rather than tests of just foam. This would prompt the use of barrier materials and smolder-proof cover fabrics to prevent furniture from igniting. Similar materials already are used in Europe.