Editor’s Note: My husband and I recently attended a screening of the movie Toxic Hot Seat, made by James Redford (yes, that Redford) and Kirby Walker. It is a superior piece of story telling that explains the arcane reasons why each one of us is sitting on literally about two pounds of carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals each time we sit on our sofas in our living rooms. In order to help me explain the current state of the law that led to this situation, I asked (told, really) my husband to write the following post about TB 117-2013 and what it means for us. Bill is an attorney and founded his own firm six years ago. He and his team represent businesses and individuals involved in complex litigation throughout the state of California and the U.S.
In this post, we will talk about how flame retardant chemicals ended up in our homes, about the changes to the flame retardant law (now called “TB 117-2013”), and how to get rid of flame retardant chemicals in your furniture.
New Flammability Regulation – TB 117-2013
There is really good news to report regarding the toxic chemicals used to make upholstered furniture in the United States. Ultimately, over the next several years or so, manufacturers will in all likelihood be selling out any inventory they may have of upholstered furniture made with toxic flame retardant chemicals. In the meantime, savvy consumers will have to ask when they buy furniture that it be free of flame retardant chemicals.
New regulations recently went into effect as of January 1, 2014 replacing the 1975 flammability standard for upholstered furniture. This new flammability standard ensures better fire safety without the need of flame retardant chemicals in the filling materials of furniture and baby products.
The Technical Bulletins described here are California regulations. However, because manufacturers have found it too expensive to manufacture both to California’s standards and to standards in other states, the California law affects all upholstered furniture sold in the United States.
Technical Bulletin 117-2013 (“TB 117-2013”) was the first revision to the nearly forty-year old furniture fire safety standard. Under the old law (“TB 117”), all filling materials contained in seating furniture needed to be able to withstand a small open flame for at least twelve-seconds without catching fire. In order to comply with that law, manufacturers infused the filling materials of upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals – up to two pounds worth of flame retardant chemicals are used per sofa. Numerous studies of the flame retardant chemicals have raised concerns as to the toxicity of those chemicals and the possible side effects associated with continued exposure including cancer, thyroid disease, developmental problems in children, and reproductive defects among others.
TB 117-2013 Smolder Test
TB 117-2013 replaces the old open flame test with a new “smolder test” done to the furniture covers. The smolder test assesses the furniture’s ability to withstand exposure to more common hazards such as catching fire from a smoldering cigarette and in the place where fires start – on top of furniture, not inside the padding.
While this is a welcome step in the right direction, consumers need to be cautioned. TB 117-2013 does not stop furniture manufacturers from treating upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals. The new law does not prohibit their use. The new law simply provides that no chemicals are needed in order for upholstered furniture to meet the new fire safety standards.
More research is needed to determine whether furniture covers would need flame retardant chemicals to pass TB 117-2013 smolder test. So far, experts estimate that approximately 85% of fabrics currently used won’t have a problem passing the test. And the flammability of other fabrics might be improved sufficiently with the introduction of tighter weaves in the fabric.
Products that are exempt from TB 117-2013
In addition, under TB 117-2013, numerous children’s products are exempt from having to comply with fire safety standards. These products include: bassinets, booster seats, car seats, changing pads, floor play mats, highchairs, highchair pads, infant bouncers, infant carriers, infant mattresses, infant mattress pads, infant seats, infant swings, infant walkers, nursing pillows, playpen side pads, playards, portable hook-on chairs, and strollers. Previously, under TB 117, only strollers, infant carriers, and nursing pillows were exempt.
Will new developments undermine TB 117-2013?
Even though TB 117-2013 is officially in effect, full compliance from furniture manufacturers is not required until January 1, 2015. However, on January 16, 2014, Chemtura Corporation filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County, California Superior Court seeking judicial review of TB 117-2013 and an injunction to prevent implementation of TB 117-2013 while this case is being decided. Chemtura is one of the major U.S. manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals. Among other allegations, Chemtura’s complaint states that “[t]he public will be irreparably harmed if [the California Department of Consumer Affairs and the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation] are not forced to rescind their proposed abandonment of the ‘open flame’ test in favor of a great-relaxed ‘cigarettes only’ testing regime that addresses only risks posed by smoldering cigarettes to the exclusion of risks posed by open flame sources.” On February 28, 2014, the California Attorney General responded on behalf of the named defendants to Chemtura’s complaint requesting dismissal of the case. The court has not granted Chemtura’s request for an injunction as of yet. Until there are further developments, consumers can still expect TB 117-2013 to go into full effect as of January 1, 2015.
What to do with flame retardant chemicals in your home?
If you are in the market for new furniture, you should check for the new “TB 117-2013” tag. But since TB 117-2013 does not prohibit furniture manufacturers from treating upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals, customers should still ask furniture sellers whether the item has been treated before purchasing it.
Additionally, many manufacturers will be selling products that are free of flame retardants, but only upon special request of the consumer. Manufacturers are likely to try to sell down their inventories of product that have flame retardants in them before they start selling those that are flame retardant-free.
If you can’t afford to replace your upholstered furniture, contact the Green Science Policy Institute for the location of the foam exchange store closest to you. By replacing your sofa’s cushions with flame retardant-free foam, you will eliminate at least 80% of the flame retardants in your sofa, depending on the sofa’s design. When possible, choose VOC-free certified natural latex foam made with no fillers, as it is made from a renewable resource and does not emit toxic chemicals. This is usually cheaper than replacing your whole sofa, but may still be a bit pricey. You may also want to check with the manufacturer to see if they will swap out the foam in the cushions for a fee.
In sum, if you own a couch or other upholstered furniture, there is a strong likelihood that it contains toxic flame retardant chemicals. Since TB 117-2013 has taken effect, it is possible to purchase furniture that has not been treated with toxic chemicals. However, you have to ask the manufacturer to make sure you’re getting something that is not so treated. Alternatively, the manufacturer or another party may be able to replace the foam in your cushions.