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Fire-retardants in furniture: manufacturers adjust to CA's new standards

Tonya Blood heads the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation
Tonya Blood heads the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation
Brian Watt/KPCC

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If you have a sofa or baby mattress, chances are good there’s a tag on it indicating the product complies with California Technical Bulletin 117. That’s California’s law requiring upholstered furniture to meet certain inflammability standards. A new TB-117 goes into effect January 1, 2014, and the furniture manufacturing industry has been preparing for it. 

The law might seem innocuous, but in its nearly 40 years on the books, TB-117 has become a source of controversy - because making furniture inflammable has also meant adding flame retardant chemicals that many believe pose serious health risks.

New TB-117 brings relief to furniture makers

More than a hundred people who work in all aspects of the furniture industry filled a meeting room at the Fullerton Community Center for a recent seminar on the new TB-117. The seminar was organized by the California Furniture Manufacturers Association, but several participants came from outside the state.  

California is the only state with a furniture inflammability standard. Because the state is such a big market for furniture, manufacturers nationwide have generally applied its standard to all the furniture they make. 

Tonya Blood, who heads the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, was one of the main speakers at the Fullerton seminar.   Her bureau oversees TB 117, and for the last year and a half, has been working to revise it. Blood said she’s worked with groups like the California Furniture Manufacturers Association on a new standard that doesn’t disrupt the furniture making process or make furniture more expensive.

"We feel like this is a great standard that will provide consumers in California the protection from smoldering sources," Blood told KPCC after the seminar. 

TB-117 currently requires the polyurethane foam in furniture to withstand exposure to a small flame for 12 seconds.  That’s the "flame test." The most effective way to pass that test has been to inject the foam with flame retardant chemicals.  The new TB-117 will replace the flame test with a smolder resistance test: a lighted cigarette placed on the fabric outside the foam.

"You really have to look at what causes fires," said Ben Nielson, who owns a small furniture making company in Gardena called Cambridge of California and serves on the board of the directors for the California Furniture Manufacturers Association.

"The number of fires in furniture is minimal," Nielson said. "Something else causes the fire.  And one of the main causes of fire in the past has been cigarettes, and cigarettes smolder."

Terry Fannon, Operations Manager for North Carolina-based fabric-maker Valdese Weavers also spoke at the Fullerton seminar. He said his company already uses the new smolder test and will only have to use a new kind of cigarette.

"Now we use a Pall Mall unfiltered cigarette that we go and get at a local shop, we’ll have to go order the standard NIST cigarette and we’re already doing that somewhat." 

For furniture makers like Ben Nielson, who build furniture from fabric and foam ordered from outside suppliers, the change in TB-117 brings some relief. Over the years, health advocates and environmentalists have pointed to research showing that exposure to the chemicals in flame retardants can cause cancer and reproductive problems. 

"The chemicals that we’ve been led to believe in the past were not harmful to a person, and we found out now they are harmful, we’re just glad they’re gone," Nielson said. "And the consumer is going to be safer, and we’re going to be able to provide them with better product and still not to have to raise prices."

The chemicals to which Nielson is referring aren't necessarily gone. The new TB-117 only changes the testing method. Since the foam is not the focus of the new test, manufacturers are free to make it without flame retardants. But the new law doesn't ban the chemicals outright.

HBO documentary shows heated battle over furniture fires

Kirby Walker is happy the state has finally revised TB-117, but wishes it could go further. Walker co-directed a documentary called “Toxic Hot Seat,” which chronicles the fight of health advocates, environmental scientists, and some veteran San Francisco firefighters to change TB-117 and get flame retardant chemicals out of home furniture. See a trailer from the documentary below.

"I do think that when this law was enacted in California in the 1970s, nobody had the intention of putting toxic harmful chemicals in our home," Walker told KPCC. "I think that was an unintended consequence." 

The documentary also depicts a well-orchestrated and well-financed campaign by the chemical industry to ‘stoke that fear’. Steve Risotto, Senior Director of the American Chemistry Council, said TB 117 was created to prevent deaths in house fires caused by burning furniture, and flame retardants play an important role.

"You can get an additional three to four minutes of escape time because of the use of flame retardants in furniture foam," Risotto said. "So you go from three to four minutes to a total of six to seven minutes of escape time. That extra time is critical."  

Risotto adds that many of the chemicals in question have been phased out and, since the 1980s, the new flame retardants go through a review process with the Environmental Protection Agency. But filmmaker Kirby Walker said there's no place for flame retardant chemicals in furniture foam.  

Free Foam Testing from the Center for Environmental Health

"The furniture industry has had to use these chemicals, this was not their choice, and they shouldn’t be blamed for this," Walker said. "At the same time, what I hope that they’re gonna choose to do is not use them now that they have the choice."

Manufacturers and retailers will have until the end of 2014 to adjust to the new law. In the meantime, Walker said, furniture shoppers should make sure that the tags on furniture say "TB-117 2013" and still ask questions about how and where the furniture was made.   

"I think that there’s gonna be enough of an outcry from the public that the furniture manufacturers are going to go out of their way to prove that they’re the people that are doing the right thing and making furniture without these toxins," Walker said.