Are you cuddling up to a toxic couch? Chances are the answer to that is yes. Since 1975, the state of California has required all furniture and all baby products, such as nursing pillows and car seats, to be flame retardant. Since the state is so huge, that standard has become a de facto national standard.
While "flame retardant" sounds reassuring, the law, known as TB117, has exposed generations of Americans to unsafe flame retardant chemicals that have been linked to cancer, infertility, and learning disabilities. But that's all about to change.
Governor Jerry Brown just announced an updated version of the law, TB117-2013, which requires that fabrics in all furniture and baby products meet a smolder test, which is more reflective of real-life fire scenarios, say advocates who support the new law.
Prior to the new law, the 1970s-era TB-117 required that furniture foam resist an open flame, a standard that never worked as well as promised, said Ana Mascareñas, coordinator of Californians for Toxic Free Fire Safety, on a conference call announcing the new law. For one thing, making the foam flame retardant didn't do any good because it's the upholstery, not the foam, that typically catches fire first. Secondly, when the treated foam did finally burn, it produced more toxic smoke and fumes, the emissions from the flames that are in fact the leading cause of fire deaths, than untreated foam. "Firefighters experience increased cancer rates, which are believed to be caused by higher on-the-job chemical exposures," Mascareñas said.
The chemicals were no healthier for furniture owners. One class of chemicals, PBDEs, which was used in couches prior to 2005, is linked to lower IQs in children and infertility in both women and men. Though no longer produced, the chemicals remain in older couches and in recycled furniture foam (commonly used as carpet padding). Newer flame-retardant chemical formulations contain other chemicals linked to cancer, and some have never been tested for safety.
The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has found in its own tests that it's more effective to prevent furniture fires with a fabric-smolder test, similar to what's required by federal law for mattresses. According to that agency, 85 percent of the furniture sold on the market today already meets the fabric-smolder test yet still contains unhealthy—and unnecessary—chemical additives.
On top of all those things, these chemicals are extremely hardy and don't break down in the environment. As a result, PBDEs and other flame retardant chemicals have been found in air, water, and animals as far away as the Arctic.
"This is a great elation for all of us—health advocates, firefighters, environmentalists, scientists, and all those who have fought valiantly to make a change to an outdated fire-safety standard," said State Senator Mark Leno, who has tried unsuccessfully for five years to change the law legislatively. "It's been very challenging and frustrating to attempt these changes," he added, "given the uncommon and severe response from the chemicals industry, reminiscent of the dirty old days of the tobacco industry." The three major chemical companies that manufacture flame-retardant chemicals paid millions in lobbying dollars to prevent his bills from passing, and even formed a fake "grassroots" fire-safety organization called Citizens for Fire Safety.
As TB117 became a de facto national standard, so will TB117-2013—good news for anyone who'd like to relax on their La-Z-Boy without wondering whether it's going to prevent them from having babies. Fabrics are made smolder resistant thanks to the materials from which they're made and the fabric's weave, rather than with the addition of unhealthy chemicals.
The new law will undergo a six-week public comment period before it's adopted by the state.