Fire Safety Without Toxic Chemicals

Update, January 5, 2021: The former SOFFA Act (see below), now renamed the COVID-19 Regulatory Relief and Work From Home Safety Act, became law on December 27, 2020, as part of the omnibus legislation passed by Congress and signed into law (see p. 2122 of the PDF). It adopts California's TB 117-2013 as the national furniture flammability standard and ensures fire safety for furniture without the need for toxic chemicals.

There is currently no flammability standard for upholstered furniture at the federal level. However, California did recently finalize, after much consideration, a furniture flammability standard that provides protection against the vast majority of upholstered furniture fires, without the need for flame retardant chemicals. Flame retardant chemicals have been linked to a variety of adverse health effects, including impaired brain development, reproductive problems, and cancers. Firefighters and children face especially high exposures and risks.

Congressional Representatives Doris Matsui and Morgan Griffith have introduced the bipartisan SOFFA Act (H.R. 2647), which will help safeguard public health without the need for toxic chemicals—it will adopt California’s flammability standard for upholstered furniture as the standard for the nation. This is why NRDC and a host of public health, environmental, and consumer groups, as well as furniture manufacturers, support the bill.

Only about 2 % of all house fires are linked to upholstered furniture. The leading cause of those upholstered furniture fires are smoldering materials--such as cigarettes--on the fabric surface of the furniture, as California’s Bureau of Household Goods and Services determined in 2013. The Bureau adopted a standard that will protect against the threat of smoldering materials igniting that fabric. The result was a California Technical Bulletin (TB 117-2013)—a standard widely supported by firefighters; environmental, consumer, and public health groups (including NRDC); independent fire scientists; and furniture manufacturers.

California’s earlier standard focused on the foam inside the fabric of the furniture being able to withstand an open flame, like a lighter or candle. That standard was primarily met through the addition of pounds of toxic, flame retardant chemicals in couches and other products. But the standard didn’t actually provide meaningful fire safety benefits since open flame fires are only implicated in such a small number of fires and it is usually too late by the time the fire gets to the foam. The Bureau recognized that the standard was not providing additional fire safety but was exposing people to toxic chemicals; so it moved to a better system and put TB 117-2013 in place.

Since TB 117-2013 was adopted, scientists have reinforced its importance and effectiveness. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that among furniture fires, those caused by smoking products were the deadliest, and that the odds of someone dying in a furniture fire caused by smoking was three times greater than in a furniture fire caused by an open flame (such as a candle or match). It also found that standards focused on fires caused by an open flame and that relied on the addition of toxic flame retardant chemicals to furniture were ineffective in reducing the incidence of fires. The authors concluded that “[d]ata on injury and death in residential fires support greater attention to smoking-related fires in furniture, because they are associated with a much higher risk of death than are fires ignited by open flames. Standards such as TB117-2013 are designed to address cigarette ignition of furniture without the use of toxic FR [flame retardant] chemicals. Future regulations to increase fire safety of residential furniture should continue to focus on ignition from smoking materials.”

California went further last year and banned the use of flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture and some other product categories. Other states and localities have also banned flame retardants in furniture, including New Hampshire, Maine, and Anchorage, Alaska.

But nearly eight years after being exposed for promoting the use of their toxic products in furniture at the expense of public health, the chemical industry is still trying to create new open flame standards in other venues that would once again promote the use of their toxic flame retardant chemicals without providing a fire safety benefit. Adopting California’s TB 117-2013 as the national flammability standard would help head off these problematic chemical industry efforts, and ensure greater protection from both furniture-related fires and exposure to toxic chemicals.

In sum, NRDC supports the SOFFA Act because it creates strong public health protections for people across the country and reduces the risk of harm by furniture-related fires.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney & Senior Director, Health & Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

Yesterday evening, the California legislature provided final approval for Assembly Bill 2998 by Assembly Member Bloom, moving the state one step closer to eliminating toxic flame retardant chemicals from California homes.

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