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Environment & Science

Don't sit on your couch too long: California tackles flame retardants

California regulations call for applying a flame directly to an upholstered item to test its safety.
California regulations call for applying a flame directly to an upholstered item to test its safety.

Okay, yes, you know on a certain level that sitting on a couch is bad for you. But scientists in the past several years have identified another reason.

Halogenated flame retardants are in the stuff of people who buy stuff, pretty much everywhere in the industrialized world — and a growing body of research has pointed to hormonal, reproductive, metabolic and thyroid impacts.

This past summer California Gov. Jerry Brown decided to do something about it.

Brown asked the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (it's part of the state's Department of Consumer Affairs) to reconsider the state's standards for flammability:

"Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” said Governor Brown. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals."

California's flammability standards are known as Technical Bulletin 117. Right now, TB 117 requires that upholstered furniture withstand 12 seconds of direct flame applied to its surface.

The state doesn't say how manufacturers have to do that. But in recent years, calls have come from manufacturers and consumer groups alike asking for a different test. 

That's because the default way to pass the standards it is to soak the foam in the furniture in a mix of flame retardant chemicals. The properties of those chemicals, incidentally, aren't always even known to the guys selling the furniture, if the chemicals are placed there by the company that made the foam in a different place.

The Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety has argued that "adding these chemicals actually can make fires even more dangerous for firefighters and victims of fires because they produce higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke in fires; the major causes of fire deaths." 

The American Home Furnishings Alliance, a major furniture-industry trade group, has said that California's rules "create a defacto policy for the rest of the country."  

What happens with California's rules now, in the next 4 to 12 months, will transform the larger furniture industry.

In fact, it already has started to. One furniture company has decided not to ship to California anymore, putting pressure on a furniture-store chain to get rid of inventory at a loss.