When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, new regulations kick into effect that may help usher in an era of less pervasive flame retardants in our home furnishings. The move caps a years-long campaign to alter regulations inextricably linked with a tobacco industry that sought to elude production of self-extinguishing cigarettes designed to limit couch fires. Deception and intrigue led to a 1970s regulation that prompted the injection of chemicals into home furniture, stemming from a distortion of scientific findings that suggested flame retardants would be more effective at reducing sofa fires than they really are. In reality, retardants provide no meaningful protection, a finding uncovered in a 2012 investigative series by The Chicago Tribune and highlighted in a recent documentary Toxic Hot Seat.
Yet even as environmentalists hail the passage of new standards in California that will facilitate this change nation-wide, there’s no guarantee that our bodies will be free anytime soon of these chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have now been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and lower IQs in children. In fact some experts worry that manufacturers will simply recycle chemical-laden foam into different household products or that the furniture will effectively migrate to the homes of lower income families. At the very least, chemicals will continue to seep into our environment via landfills. And the risk is long-term—the substances do not quickly break down into safer chemicals and they tend to accumulate in food chains and living tissue.
The old California regulation sparked widespread flame retardant use in sofas, recliners and easy chairs. It became the de facto requirement for the nation due to manufacturers’ desire to cater to a single standard, especially one emerging from a highly populous state. The law requires foam used in upholstered furniture to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. As a result, home sofas could be laced with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals. Numerous studies have shown that flame retardants embedded in household furniture leach into our homes in the form of dust and then accumulate in the body. They also drift into rivers and streams, and into marine life. Smoke from retardant-laced furniture flames also has been linked to chronic disease in firefighters. The revised law, effective in January 2014, aims to limit that toxic dust and its effects. The change does not prevent manufacturers from using flame retardants, but it does make it feasible to avoid their use while still clearing regulations.
The new requirements state that upholstered furniture sold in the state must not continue to “smolder” some 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it—protecting against a cigarette carelessly dropped on a couch rather than a lit candle. Manufacturers can meet the requirement without the use of fire retardants, by using fabrics that better withstand such exposures or by lining furniture with a fire barrier such as polyester batting. Furniture manufacturers nation-wide have ensured that their wares met the stringent California flammability standards for the past few decades, so the new requirements are expected to have ripple effects across the industry that will trigger a reduction in the use of flame retardant in our home furnishings.
“I think this is a big advance,” says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. But she cautions, “Whenever you have persistent chemicals that have been used in the past once they are introduced into the environment they will be with us for a long time.”
Furniture complying with the new regulations will bear a tag that reads “TB 117-2013,” but that does not mean that furniture is free of flame retardants. For that information, consumers will have to query retailers directly, and for retailers to know the answer, they will have had to make inquiries to manufacturers. Each company will achieve compliance differently, says Patricia Bowling, vice president of communications for the furniture manufacturers group, the American Home Furnishings Alliance. Meanwhile the executive director for the Polyurethane Foam Association says any chemical change in foam will have to be “customer driven” with companies responding on an individual basis. The retailers, in turn, say it’s up to manufacturers: “Our members will do what they have always done. They will have to make sure everything is properly tagged,” says Sharron Bradley, CEO of the North American Home Furnishings Association. “If consumers are asking for [flame retardant information] I’m sure they will be asking their manufacturers. It’s really a matter of the manufacturers first.”
It remains to be seen if consumers will know to ask such questions, or whether retailers will have full answers. “I think there’s a lot of questions and confusion, and confusion from manufacturers and the general public,” says Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University who studies flame retardants in household items and human exposures.
Where old couches go to die
Related consumer behavior also might not change overnight. For instance, no one expects people to rush out and throw out their old couches. “I’m thinking of my 25-year-old couch and I still love it,” Birnbaum says. Old couches may still shed household dust, but it remains largely unfeasible to find out more information about individual couches short of pricey analytical chemistry tests. Moreover, when people eventually throw out old furniture, its impact does not vanish. If you donate the item to charity, it might end up in a lower-income family’s home, says Arlene Blum, a longtime advocate on limiting flame retardant exposures and a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California Berkeley. Or old foam could be chopped up for use in carpet cushioning that may be laid beneath household carpets. “At the moment there is no good solution,” she says. Also, widespread recycling programs for furniture foam are non-existent, so most old couches end up at landfills.
Meanwhile there is no requirement for furniture companies to eliminate their retardant-laced inventory. They can sell stock until it is depleted, but California retailers’ purchases must meet the new requirements, starting in January 2015.
Blum, who is also director of the Green Science Policy Institute, says that the regulatory change represents a victory in the long run for public health and the environment, but the ideal solution—chemically separating flame retardants from foam—still requires more research. For now, she says, concerned consumers should look for flame retardant-free furniture.