Judge upholds California's improved furniture standard

Flame retardant chemical maker Chemtura loses its lawsuit against the state

On August 29, 2014, a judge ruled that California’s updated furniture standard is legal and rejected the challenge to the standard by Chemtura Corporation, a major manufacturer of flame retardant chemicals. The court’s decision found that the state acted appropriately when it made revisions to the furniture standard to provide better fire safety without the need to use flame retardant chemicals.

The decision explained that Chemtura’s interpretation of the law is contrary to the legislative intent, and that following Chemtura’s argument would produce “absurd results.”

Prior to the lawsuit, Chemtura contributed to the $23 million dollar effort to keep California’s old, outdated standard locked in place, despite mounting evidence of the standard’s ineffectiveness and the harmful health and environmental impacts of flame retardant chemicals. Flame retardant chemicals escape from furniture and are associated with serious health impacts like cancer, reduced IQ, and hyperactivity.  In order to meet California’s old standard, furniture was packed full of these flame retardants, but tests by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and others showed that the use of the chemicals in upholstered furniture provided no significant protection against the start or spread of fires.

In its prize-winning investigative journalism series, Playing with Fire, the Chicago Tribune documented how the flame retardant industry, including Chemtura, misled California legislators by overselling the effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals and downplaying their health risks. The Tribune reported that the industry’s tactics included forming a front group called Citizens for Fire Safety and hiring a physician to testify about flame retardants and burn victims. The doctor has since surrendered his license amid charges that his testimony was false.

When California announced its updated standard in 2013 which would protect against the main cause of furniture fires and didn’t require the use of flame retardant chemicals, Chemtura wasted no time and sued the state. In order to support the new regulation, fire safety, health, and environmental groups, including NRDC, intervened in the lawsuit.

The court’s decision reinforces that Chemtura’s attack on California’s modern, science-based standard was baseless. This judgment is a victory for public health and safety—as the new standard goes into full effect on January 1, 2015, more furniture choices without toxic flame retardant chemicals should become available to consumers.