For four decades, AHFA has supported a national flammability standard for upholstered furniture that is focused on smolder ignition sources. Throughout this time, AHFA has opposed flammability solutions that would increase Americans’ exposure to flame retardant chemicals.
AHFA and other stakeholders maintain that flame retardant chemicals aren’t necessary, or even effective, for reducing the fire hazard presented by upholstered furniture.
In the 1970s, when nearly 4 out of 10 American adults were smokers, flame retardant chemicals were added to many household items – including bedding, carpeting, furniture and electronics – that were likely to catch fire due to unattended, smoldering cigarettes. At the time, these chemicals were lauded by the chemical industry, consumer advocates and the media for preventing household fires, limiting the spread of fire and minimizing fire damage.
In 1975, California passed a law requiring all upholstered furniture sold in the state to pass a stringent open flame test. Because California represents one of the nation’s largest consumer markets, the flammability regulation, known as Technical Bulletin 117 became a de facto national standard. As a result, flame retardant chemicals were added to foam supplies nationwide so upholstered furniture could pass California’s open flame test.
During the 1980s and 1990s, consumer advocates often warned against buying any upholstered furniture that did not carry the TB 117 label. During this time, the furniture industry was sharply criticized for not mandating wider use of FR chemicals.
After years of industry-supported research and advocacy, dangerous flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were phased out of use in furniture foam, electronics, and children’s products. With TB 117 still in place, however, PBDEs were simply swapped out with organophosphate flame retardants in many products. Like the old PBDEs, organohalogen flame retardants continuously migrate out of products into dust, and research shows varying levels of these chemicals in the environment and even in our bodies.
Some studies show organophosphate flame retardants at high levels may threaten fertility in adults and healthy brain development in children.
California updated its flammability standard in 2013 after significant media coverage of the dangers in FR chemicals, including a 2013 HBO documentary called “Toxic Hot Seat.” The new TB 117-2013 standard eliminated the open flame upholstery test and prompted a massive shift throughout the residential furniture industry to foam with no added FR chemicals.
In September 2017, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission granted a petition to initiate rulemaking under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act to ban organohalogen flame retardants in infant/toddler products, upholstered furniture, mattresses and electronics. CPSC further directed its staff to convene a “Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel” to study the effects of OFRs as a class of chemicals on consumer health.
In October 2018, California passed a ban on the use of most flame retardants in residential upholstered furniture, children’s products and mattress foam. Products containing flame retardants at levels above 1,000 parts per million may no longer be sold in the state, as of January 1, 2020.
Additional states – and one municipality (San Francisco) – have adopted restrictions or outright bans on specific FR chemicals, each with its own labeling requirements. To avoid this patchwork of state regulation, AHFA has long favored federal chemical reform. (January 2020)