"They tend to be bio-accumulative, persistent and they also tend to be toxic," says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, which advocates against industrial flame-retardants. "We can have pounds of these in organohalogens in our consumer products in our homes"
It is not clear how such chemicals escape from couches, but as they age, they may leach retardants as dust that then gets inhaled or else works its way into the environment. Flame retardants have been found in rivers and streams around San Francisco as well as in fish and marine mammals.
Industry representatives say they are constantly changing the makeup of their products to reflect the newest science and safest ingredients. Environmentalists complain that the changing recipes amount to a shell game, where companies make tiny changes and then continue to sell a product while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restarts safety protocols.
Specifically, Blum worries about the health impacts of new organohalogens (like Firemaster 550, a popular alternative to pentaPBDE) because its compositional specifics are hidden behind patent laws. According to the EPA, Firemaster is not a health risk and has not been shown to accumulate in the body, although studies are still ongoing.
One possible solution would be to abandon flame retardants in foam and focus more on the fabrics covering the couch or else create an envelope of fire-proof material between the fabric and foam. However, both are expensive fixes and the textile industry has a history of controversial use of flame retardants, especially in children's clothing. Blum was a part of the movement to ban flame retardants in that merchandise.
Questions of health effects, however, could be moot if the extra retardant in foam is not actually preventing extra fires. Babrauskas says that TB 117 is ineffective, only serving to create more toxic smoke without observably limiting fires. Smoke from fires generally kills victims before the fire and has been linked to chronic disease in firefighters.
Environmental activists in California have tried to topple the 12-second rule before—which would immediately change how retardants are used in the rest of the country—with little success due to supporters' concerns that change would result in more fire deaths. The new legislation requires the state Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to amend TB 117 to include an option to chemical flame retardants (although it does not specify what that option should be), thus giving furniture manufacturers a choice between the old standard and a new one.
Mainstream furniture-makers have until now largely stayed out of the fight, allowing environmentalists and chemical companies including Albermarle, Chemtura, and ICL-IP America (the three dominant flame retardant companies) to slug it out. Furniture giant Ikea, however, recently drafted a letter supporting the changes to California policy, as did the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA).
Defending their products, representatives from the chemical industry point to broader statistics supporting the use of flame retardants in furniture. They say that every extra bit of retardant saves lives, pointing to the U.K., where they say decreases in fire deaths correspond to increases in the use of flame retardants.
Robert Luedeka, executive director of the U.S. Polyurethane Foam Association, a group representing companies that supply foam for furniture-makers, says customers are now very worried and confused about flame retardants in furniture. He stresses that his organization has not taken sides, adding that retardants do not really increase the cost of the foam. But it is only worth the effort if it saves lives. The chemical industry says 20 percent of fire-related deaths in residences occur as a result of fires that started on furniture. But data from the National Fire Protection Association suggests very few of these are from open flames like those controlled by TB117. "For this, millions of pounds of fire retardant is being put into upholstered furniture," he says. "The question is: Was there ever a threat?"