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Foam Alone: Do Furniture Flame Retardants Save Enough Lives to Justify Their Environmental Damage?

An obscure California law effectively sets flammability standards for foam in the nation's furniture, but proposed new legislation claims flame retardants don't prevent fires and could have negative health impacts
flame



Flickr/CPSutcliffe

Legislation on California state Sen. Mark Leno's desk has the potential to affect every household in the U.S.

If Leno has his way, the state's textile and furniture manufacturers, and thus probably all such makers in the U.S., will drastically alter the amount of flame retardant carried in almost every sofa, love seat and easy chair in the country.

At issue is something called Technical Bulletin 117 (or TB 117), an obscure California law enacted in the late 1970s. It requires all furniture stuffing foam in the state to withstand 12 full seconds of open flame, analogous to a cigarette lighter held against a couch with the upholstery ripped off. Furniture flammability is largely regulated by states, and California is by far the toughest.

"The biggest fuel load in your house is your polyurethane foam," says Alex Morgan, a flammability expert at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "Polyurethane has a very high heat release rate so when it catches, you just have a very short period of time before you're dead."

The current law sets no requirements for how to keep products from burning during those critical 12 seconds, so furniture manufacturers turned to an array of chemical flame retardants mixed directly into the foam. Because these chemicals are cheap, and in order to avoid a separate production line to accommodate every state's flame retardants threshold, major manufacturers now create all U.S. furniture foam to California standards.

Critics of these additives, however, worry they might be dangerous and want an alternative from the 12-second standard. It fails to prevent fires, they say—and worse, it allows dangerous chemicals to leach into humans and the environment.

Flame retardants in foam "are not effective enough to make them stop burning rapidly once they're ignited. But they are effective in polluting the environment and creating health concerns," says fire expert Vytenis Babrauskas, president of Fire Science & Technology, Inc., and a 16-year veteran of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "You get the worst coming and going."

Babrauskas specializes in the study of the temperature at which various household objects ignite and how fast they burn. He created several of the tools that the federal government uses to set standardsmeasure for furniture safety. He says that it takes very little flame retardant to stop a lit cigarette from igniting a couch and a phenomenal amount to slow a sizable flame—amounts often used in airplanes and prisons, according to his July 1988 special report for the National Bureau of Standards (NIST's former name). He says, however, expecting home furnishing to withstand a smaller cigarette lighter flame for 12 seconds is arbitrary and demands too much of a chemical that may have adverse health effects.

The term "flame retardant" casts a wide net. Mostly it refers to organohalogens—compounds like DDT that incorporate halogens such as chlorine or bromine into organic molecules—that are naturally nearly nonexistent in mammals. Lately, attention has focused on one class of these, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which tend to accumulate in living organisms and have been implicated in reduced fertility (for instance, in research published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives); decreased IQ (in research also published last year in the same journal); and for at least one PBDE that has since been phased out, cancer in rats. Another PBDE, pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaPBDE), once the primary flame retardant in furniture, was voluntarily withdrawn by the chemical industry after a 2007 paper in Science showed a tendency to accumulate in the body.

"They tend to be bioaccumulative, 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?"

Susan Lundy, a spokesperson for Albemarle, who herself was nearly burned as a child when her pajamas caught fire, says there's no question. "You ask people who lose their children in fires, 'Do they think it's valuable to have flame retardants in there?' I promise you, they would say, 'Yes.'"

The bill is expected to hit the state senate floor in May.

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