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The Fight Against Flame Retardants

Thanks to a long-overdue regulatory update and a new labeling law, shoppers can finally find safer furniture.

Shopping for a new couch? Until 2013, it was surprisingly difficult to find sofas that weren’t filled with toxic chemicals. Wait a second, you’re probably wondering. Does that mean my current couch, the one my family lounges all over, is filled with toxic chemicals? If it was purchased before 2013 and isn’t a total antique, there’s a good chance that yes, it is.

These chemicals are known as flame retardants, and theoretically they’re there to protect you. The whole truth, though, is much more convoluted. The fight against these chemicals has centered on changing an outdated and ineffective rule in California—a state so big that its standards dictate the market. (After all, companies don’t make different couches for different states.) Here’s the whole story about how upholstered furniture is slowly but steadily becoming safer, and what you should know before shopping today.

The truth about flame retardants

In 1975, California passed a regulation called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which effectively required all upholstered furniture sold within the state to contain flame-retardant chemicals. Oddly, the law required that foam inside upholstered items to withstand a flame for 12 seconds (odd because items generally catch fire on the outside first—and 12 seconds does not provide much protection). And, according to tests by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups, the chemicals weren’t even that effective against fires when added to furniture.

Along with having dubious merit, these chemicals have been linked to cancer, reduced IQ, and hyperactivity. During manufacture, use, and disposal, they also contaminate our air and water. Because of these concerns, a coalition of California-based groups—including NRDC—spent years pushing for new standards that would allow manufacturers to maintain fire safety without toxic chemicals.

For a long while, the coalition’s various legislative efforts were defeated, largely due to heavy lobbying from the chemical industry. But at the end of 2013, after working with the Brown administration to rework the fire-safety regulation, TB 117 was finally updated. (New name: TB 117-2013.) The revised standard addresses the fire resistance of materials covering the outside of upholstered furniture—and this can be accomplished using blends of nontoxic, naturally smolder-proof materials like wool and leather or by manufacturing techniques that rely on specific weights, weaves, and blends of fibers like cotton and synthetics rather than flame-retardant chemicals.

As for that interior foam? Flame retardant–free versions are now legal in California, so manufacturers are now increasingly making and selling furniture that meets the updated flame-resistant standards without the use of toxic flame-retardant chemicals.

Industry vs. the people: How the good guys won

This victory was the culmination of many efforts. NRDC was there at every step, working with public-health and environmental groups to change the ineffective flammability standard and educating the public about flame retardants to motivate citizens to also push for safer upholstered furniture.

Another important piece was an award-winning 2012 investigative series in the Chicago Tribune called "Playing with Fire." It revealed deceptive tactics used by the flame-retardant industry, including forming a front group (Citizens for Fire Safety), paying a doctor to falsely testify about burn victims (he has since surrendered his license), and generally misleading California lawmakers about the effectiveness and safety of flame-retardant chemicals.

All told, from 2006 to 2009, the industry mounted a $23 million effort to keep outdated standards in place. So it came as no surprise when Chemtura, a major manufacturer of flame-retardant chemicals, sued California in 2014 over the new standards. NRDC and several other watchdog groups intervened, and the lawsuit was dismissed. TB 117-2013 was determined legal, and it remains today.

Still, the work isn’t entirely finished; a new standard is not a ban. If manufacturers choose, they can still make upholstered furniture using dangerous flame-retardant chemicals.

Helping shoppers make smarter choices

“The follow-up to the standard change, to really give consumers the information they need, was labeling,” says Veena Singla, an NRDC staff scientist based in San Francisco. “People needed a way to know which furniture has flame retardants and which doesn’t."

That’s why NRDC, with the Center for Environmental Health and California Professional Firefighters, cosponsored a labeling bill to provide shoppers with clear information. SB 1019, also known as the Toxic Furniture Right-to-Know Bill, passed in 2014. It’s a consumer’s best friend, covering everything from fabric to filling. If there are any added flame retardants in the upholstery materials used to make a piece of furniture, that must be disclosed on a label.

The best part is that the law is overarching, covering any chemical with flame-retardant properties. “There are known bad actors, but there are always new ones coming in,” says Singla. “And there’s a bad history of regrettable substitutions, so we felt it was very important that any flame-retardant chemical—bromine, chlorine, nano, halogenated—is encompassed. Very simply put, you just don’t need them.”

Even with these two victories, though, it can still be tricky for the average consumer to find furniture without flame retardants. Some manufacturers still use them, and old stock is still being sold. (The labeling standards apply only to new furniture.) Luckily, the market is changing fast.

“We estimate that 14 percent of the retail furniture market has moved or is moving away from flame-retardant chemicals, based on commitments from large manufacturers like Ashley Furniture and a number of others,” says Singla. “They see they don’t need the toxic chemicals, and that’s not what consumers want. It’s safer for the workers and the customers.”

For now, you have labeling to help you steer clear of the toxic chemicals that do remain. But bigger and broader chemical reforms are needed on a federal level. Consider, for example, that TB 117 (and its update) covers only upholstered furniture. So your new couch may now be flame retardant–free, but who knows about your mattress? To help push this issue forward, ask your elected officials for comprehensive, overarching change and vote with your dollars by purchasing only furniture without added flame-retardant chemicals.

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