Great news to anyone who likes to sit on a cushion: retailers are making the wise choice to eliminate toxic flame retardants in home furniture. In the meantime, read on to learn how labels identify which products are safe for your home.
January 23, 2015
The Chicago Tribune
By Michael Hawthorne
New safety regulations allow upholstered furniture to be made without flame retardants, but consumers may find it difficult to tell whether a retailer’s new couches and chairs are free of the toxic, ineffective chemicals.
A handful of industry leaders say they have largely purged flame retardants from their supply chains. Others are more vague about their plans. Some decline to address the issue at all.
The inconsistent messages mean consumers must ask retailers pointed questions if they want to ensure a particular couch or chair doesn’t contain flame retardants linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility.
They also can check the label commonly found underneath seat cushions. Under a new California law that manufacturers are applying to products sold nationwide, furniture made after Jan. 1 features an updated label that clearly states whether or not flame retardants were added to “upholstery materials.”
The new label is among the policy changes prompted by a Tribune investigative series that exposed a deceptive campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote flame retardants, despite research showing the chemicals provide little protection from furniture fires.
Some manufacturers moved early last year to eliminate flame retardants from their products after California adopted a new flammability standard that can be met without adding the chemicals to foam cushions. Others are scrambling to catch up after the labeling requirement was signed into law in September.
“There isn’t a practical reason to keep using flame retardants, and there aren’t a lot of people left out there who want to explain why they are still using them,” said Andy Counts, chief executive of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, an industry trade group.
Crate and Barrel, Room & Board, and Williams-Sonoma (Pottery Barn, West Elm) all say they have mostly eliminated the chemicals from their products. IKEA, La-Z-Boy, The Futon Shop, Scandinavian Designs and Wal-Mart also said they have told vendors to stop adding flame retardants to furniture.
But the nation’s largest furniture company, Wisconsin-based Ashley Furniture, would say only that it is committed to making products that don’t contain flame retardants. Target issued a two-sentence response to detailed questions, saying it is “committed to providing high quality and safe products for our guests.”
Another market leader, the furniture division of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, did not respond to several requests for information. Nor did Pier 1, Rooms To Go or American Signature.
One big reason why consumers probably aren’t hearing much about the issue: Retailers are still selling off older furniture that contains the chemicals.
“The transition has been a lot slower than people had hoped,” said Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California at Berkeley who has drawn attention to health risks posed by flame retardants.
Still, the changes mark an important turning point in efforts to remove toxic chemicals from household products.
U.S. manufacturers had for decades added pounds of flame retardants to furniture cushions to meet a flammability standard adopted by California during the mid-1970s. Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, required furniture foam to withstand a candle-like flame for 12 seconds, a requirement that led most manufacturers to add flame retardants to the spongy, petroleum-based material.
The rule brought a series of toxic chemicals into homes across the country. American babies came to be born with the highest average concentrations of flame retardants recorded among infants in the world.
California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a new flammability standard after the Tribune published its “Playing With Fire” investigation, which documented how the chemical industry repeatedly misled regulators and the public with flawed data and questionable claims about the effectiveness of flame retardants.
The series helped break a long deadlock between advocates concerned about the health hazards of flame retardants and those who argue the chemicals give people time to escape a fire.
The chemical industry continues to promote flame retardants as life-savers. But multiple studies by government scientists and independent researchers have found the compounds fail to provide meaningful protection from furniture fires.
“Experts agree that these chemicals are not needed to make furniture fire safe,” Veena Singla, a scientist with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post last year. “In fact, when furniture with flame retardants burns in a fire, the flame retardants can create more toxic smoke that endangers the health of firefighters. The chemicals also pose threats during the furniture’s normal use.”
California’s new flammability standard, Technical Bulletin 117-2013, no longer requires uncovered furniture foam to resist an open flame. Instead, it addresses the biggest cause of furniture fires by requiring upholstery fabric to resist a smoldering cigarette.
Most furniture fabrics can meet that smolder standard without added chemicals, though some high-cotton varieties might still be coated with flame retardants to ensure compliance. Some companies have been able to stop using the chemicals by adding a barrier of fire-resistant polyester between cotton fabric and foam.
Since the new flammability standard doesn’t ban the use of flame retardants, California lawmakers adopted the labeling requirement to prevent any confusion about which products are free of the chemicals.
Several furniture industry leaders said that if they haven’t ditched flame retardants altogether, they are well on their way to doing so. The shift is dramatically different than a decade ago, when companies phased out one toxic flame retardant for other worrisome compounds.
Northbrook-based Crate and Barrel says it has assigned separate item numbers, known as SKUs, to furniture made without the chemicals. “During the past year, most of our upholstery inventory has transitioned to new SKUs that indicate there are no added flame retardants,” said Rich Cohrs, a company spokesman.
All of Room & Board’s suppliers stopped adding flame retardants to foam cushions by last July, said Kate Lloyd, a company spokeswoman. The company’s fabric vendors all have guaranteed they no longer add flame retardants to their products, she added.
“All of our upholstery is now 100 percent FR chemical-free,” Lloyd said. “We have worked with our partners to find a viable solution.”
Bob Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, said that if industry leader Ashley follows other companies and stops using flame retardants, the chemicals “could be a thing of the past in residential furniture.”
Responding by email, Ashley said its furniture complies with the California labeling law. The company also said it is “committed to designing furniture … without the use of flame retardant chemicals.”
Until older inventories are sold off, shoppers can expect furniture in showrooms and warehouses to feature one of three labels.
If the label says a product meets Technical Bulletin 117, it almost assuredly contains flame retardants. Couches and chairs marked in compliance with Technical Bulletin 117-2013 might or might not still contain the chemicals. The newest furniture features a more expansive label indicating that it complies with Technical Bulletin 117-2013 and noting whether it contains flame retardants “known to, or strongly suspected of, adversely impacting human health or development.”
Most retailers rely on several vendors, furniture industry officials said, so they are being cautious until all of their suppliers have stopped using flame retardants.
In an attempt to nudge Ashley and other retailers to act more quickly, a coalition of environmental groups called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is sending letters requesting specific deadlines for vendors.
“For years, consumers were saddled with few safe choices when they wanted to buy a couch or other foam-padded furniture,” said Mike Schade, director of the group’s Mind the Store campaign. “Banishing toxic flame retardant chemicals will make our homes safer while improving our health.”
One furniture maker that eliminated the chemicals said the transition has been relatively easy.
“People keep their sofas longer than they keep their cars,” said Rick Coffey, president of McCreary Modern, a North Carolina manufacturer that supplies furniture to Room & Board, Crate and Barrel and several other retailers. “We want our products to be as clean and safe as possible. It’s just the right thing to do.”
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