• CLARIFICATION: This story was updated on Oct. 30, 2012, to clarify the following: C&EN stated that the Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA) provided grant money to Arlene Blum; PFA maintains that it only ever gave Blum a one-time speaker fee, not grant money.
Volume 90 Issue 44 | pp. 28-33
Issue Date: October 29, 2012

Cover Stories: Fighting Fires

Ablaze Over Furniture Fires

Fire-safety scientists are outraged by a chemist’s campaign against flame-retardant chemicals
Department: Government & Policy, Science & Technology
Keywords: flame retardant chemicals, fire safety, upholstered furniture, TB 117, science policy
In an interview, C&EN’s William Schulz asks California State Sen. Mark Leno (D) about consulting the chemical industry on the issue flame-retardant chemicals.
Credit: C&EN
A California Department of Consumer Affairs technician shows upholstered furniture tested to meet the state’s fire protection standards.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
A California Department of Consumer Affairs technician shows upholstered furniture tested to meet the state’s fire protection standards.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN

The modest home of Arlene Blum in the hills of Berkeley, Calif., has no overstuffed sofas or chairs. That’s because this mountaineer and chemist is deeply concerned about her exposure—and yours—to the flame-retardant chemicals that are nearly always present in the polyurethane foam innards and other parts of such furniture. Flame retardants are necessary additives if foam and furniture makers’ products are to meet California’s strict fire-safety laws for upholstered furniture.

The chemicals won’t be needed if Blum has her way. As founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, she operates a nerve center in Berkeley dedicated to the eradication of many flame retardants in consumer products. She is credited in part with a move now under way to overhaul sections of California’s fire-safety regulations for upholstered furniture. That revision, if it takes effect next summer in its current form, would mostly eliminate the need for flame retardants in residential home furnishing products.

Fire-safety experts and other people who oppose Blum’s campaign—and who have called for a more reasoned analysis of the fire-safety science on flame retardants—say she brushes them aside as disqualified to provide expert opinion because of current, previous, or inconsequential chemical industry ties. They say Blum and her supporters shout them down at public workshops or refuse to engage in dialogue over the issues and the science. Worse, they say, Blum is promoting false information about fire safety from flame retardants via a high-visibility media campaign that stokes fear of chemicals that have been used for decades and have saved the lives of tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who have been the victims of home fires.

To some people, Blum’s concerns seem especially alarmist and speculative because of materials she writes and distributes. For example, they cite a 2008 Los Angeles Times editorial in which she ponders whether exposure to flame retardants brought on the hyperthyroidism that killed her cat, Midnight. A veterinarian found that Midnight’s blood contained high levels of flame-retardant chemicals.

Blum and other scientists insist that a growing body of evidence indicates that the brominated flame-retardant chemicals used in upholstered furniture may, in some cases, be endocrine disrupters or have neurological and other health effects that make them unacceptable for use in everyday objects like sofas and chairs. Such flame retardants, she says, tend to accumulate in tissues and have been detected in the blood of adults and children.

“There are some 3,700 peer-reviewed papers on flame-retardant chemicals’ toxicity,” Blum says emphatically. Children especially, she says, should have very limited—if any—exposure to compounds that might damage their physical and intellectual development or leave them more vulnerable to other chronic health problems.

Industry scientists and other researchers quickly counter that exposure does not equal risk. In a new book, “Flame Retardancy in 2012,” Florida Institute of Technology professor Gordon L. Nelson and coworkers write: “Analytical chemistry now allows testing at very low levels. Reports of flame retardants at levels of parts per billion have been reported for household dust and blood.” Nelson is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on flame retardants and fire safety.

The book’s coauthors go on to say that 70 or more chemicals are frequently found in human blood, “thus, knowing one class and not looking for or knowing the levels of the others can give misleading human health attribution. Interestingly halogen flame retardants receive considerable criticism, yet some 5,000 different organo­halogens are found in nature.”

Still, Blum’s questioning is not just idle speculation. Producers of pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE) withdrew the product from sale in 2004 because of negative risk assessment data developed in Europe. For similar reasons, U.S. suppliers of decaBDE have pledged to the Environmental Protection Agency that they will phase out decaBDE by the end of the year, except for some military and transportation applications. And EPA is moving to restrict the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) as well as other members of the polyBDE class of flame-retardant compounds because of the very health and environmental concerns Blum and supporters have outlined. Other flame-retardant chemicals may come under review by EPA, which is seeking to refine the nation’s chemical control law (see box on page 36).

Blum says the case against flame retardants goes beyond their potential toxicity. She argues the chemicals do not work as advertised, an assertion she has made repeatedly in several review papers she has coauthored (Rev. Environ. Health2010,25, 261) and in many news media interviews she has given in recent months.

When asked if there could be differing interpretations of what is a large and complex body of data on the efficacy of flame retardants, Blum snaps, “I am not a fire scientist. This is such a broad field. There are about 10 disciplines involved.”

Blum says that other ways to prevent deaths from upholstered-furniture fires—improved building codes, reduced cigarette smoking, and increased use of sprinkler systems, for example—undermine the case for using flame-retardant chemicals.

In fact, Blum is now working in overdrive to support a revision of California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), as the Cal­ifornia fire-safety standard for upholstered furniture is known. The potential impact of a revision—ordered in June by California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.—is hard to overstate. Because the federal government, for nearly 40 years, has failed to produce a national fire protection standard for the polyurethane foam and upholstered furniture industry (see box on page 32), TB 117 has become the de facto national standard. If California substantially alters or weakens its fire-safety upholstery standard—and many fire-safety scientists who spoke with C&EN believe that state officials, including Gov. Brown, are trying to do just that—then the same standards will apply nationwide.

The current regulation is spelled out in a highly detailed document that defines the fire-resistance performance standards for a wide variety of furniture fillings—natural and man-made—as well as upholstery fabrics. The regulation prescribes the exact test procedures to be used for each type of material or furniture component, as well as the testing equipment to be used. Each furniture component must pass two tests: One examines how quickly the material burns when ignited by a smoldering cigarette and the other by an open flame.

Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN

The cigarette smolder test was developed because smoking materials are the leading cause of upholstered-furniture fires. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, 27% of the 5,600 fires in the U.S. that began with upholstered furniture were ignited by cigarettes and other smoking materials, according to data gathered by the National Fire Protection Association. Candles, lighters, and matches were the sources of another 20% of these fires, and this is the statistic fire-safety experts cite as the reason to have an open-flame test.

Other sources of upholstered-furniture fires include space heaters and ember or ash from fireplaces or wood stoves.

The fear that California is weakening its standard—and thus compromising public safety—comes from a draft revision of TB 117 put forth by the California Department of Consumer Affairs earlier this year for discussion by stakeholders, including firms that make flame-retardant compounds. The draft revision of TB 117 sets furniture performance benchmarks only for the fire hazard from a standardized cigarette smolder ignition test. There would be no open-flame challenge to furniture components, as is required by today’s TB 117 and considered an absolute necessity by many independent fire-safety experts who spoke with C&EN.

Today’s fabrics and other barrier materials surrounding the foam, Blum and proponents of a smolder-only revision say, are enough to prevent the chief cause of fires started by upholstered furniture—an accidentally dropped cigarette. Foam and furniture manufacturers could meet the new standard, Blum says, without having to use flame retardants at all.

Chemist Carrie Cathalifaud of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs shows a strip of fabric tested to comply with the state’s strict fire protection standards for home furnishings.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Chemist Carrie Cathalifaud of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs shows a strip of fabric tested to comply with the state’s strict fire protection standards for home furnishings.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN

Blum’s insistence that the smolder standard is enough and that flame-retardant chemicals are toxic and ineffective has gained widespread support and publicity—much of it generated by Blum herself. Her conclusions and assertions about flame-retardant chemicals, along with those of experts who agree with her, have appeared in several high-profile media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Diane Rehm Show on public radio. California politicians, like State Sen. Mark Leno (D), credit her with their awareness of the flame-retardants issue and the health and environmental problems flame retardants allegedly cause.

“I see no proof that TB 117 has helped,” Leno says. Before Brown issued the directive to revise TB 117, Leno introduced five bills in the California State Legislature to deregulate the use of flame retardants so that consumers could choose whether to buy furniture treated with the chemicals. Leno says he is convinced that the chemicals do not retard fires.

When asked about seeking information from experts on the other side of the argument, Leno becomes visibly angry. He claims that strong-arm tactics by industry lobbyists and dishonest experts working on industry’s behalf shot down all of his efforts toward measured reform of the state’s fire-safety laws. “They lied to us,” he says, and in the process have discredited themselves, especially through the now-defunct and heavily criticized industry group Citizens for Fire Safety. In such a sour atmosphere, Leno says, the governor had no alternative but to issue a directive to reform TB 117 and lower exposures to flame-retardant chemicals.

“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,” Brown said in a statement after issuing his order. “The guidelines in place now—Technical Bulletin 117 for flammability standards—will be updated to reflect modern manufacturing methods that can lower the use of harmful chemicals,” he said. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with C&EN.

A growing chorus of independent fire-safety scientists, materials chemists, and chemical industry experts is pushing back against Blum’s anti-flame-retardant-chemicals campaign in the hope that they can preserve and perhaps even strengthen TB 117. They are openly critical of Blum, her scientific credentials, and her assertions regarding the safety and efficacy of flame-retardant compounds. They say Blum’s campaign ignores or downplays the danger of residential fires and the fire hazard presented by nontreated upholstered furniture and polyurethane foam. Many contend that she is simply conducting another in a long line of misguided crusades against “toxic chemicals.”

A student at Florida Institute of Technology places a sample in a calorimeter for flame-retardant testing.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
A student at Florida Institute of Technology places a sample in a calorimeter for flame-retardant testing.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN

“What’s the evidence that flame-retardant chemicals don’t work?” asks Florida Institute of Technology’s Nelson, who is also an American Chemical Society past-president. Since the start of his career in the early 1970s, he has researched and developed flame-retardant technologies to protect against fire in a variety of plastics, electronics, consumer products, and military applications. He says Blum’s claim that flame-retardant chemicals “don’t work” contradicts and is offensive to the thousands of scientists whose decades of work reported in thousands of peer-reviewed papers demonstrate otherwise. “Flame-retardant materials work when properly used,” Nelson says emphatically.

One project that showed this definitively—and that is often cited by Nelson and many other experts—is “Fire Hazard Comparisons of Fire-Retarded and Non-Fire-Retarded Products,” a 1988 publication from the National Bureau of Standards, which is now the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST). The study addressed the question: Is overall fire hazard reduced when comparing fire-retarded to non-fire-retarded items that are otherwise substantially identical products? Agency scientists devised tests to burn treated and nontreated items of furniture in special test chambers, or calorimeters, to find out.

These tests didn’t replicate or examine the efficacy of the TB 117 standard. The study aimed to test the overall performance of flame retardants and was meant to reflect a situation in which furniture was a secondary source, or fuel, for spreading fire. As such, the tests examined the chemicals’ ability to retard fires from ignition sources of about 30 kW compared with the 83–295-kW ignition sources used in TB 117 tests.

The agency’s tests, the report says, made clear that when furniture is treated with flame retardants, less of it is consumed by a fire. The agency also found that heat release from treated materials is 25% that from nontreated material and that the quantity and toxicity of gases produced in a fire were much less for treated products. To the last point, it is often claimed—incorrectly, as many later tests have also shown—that flame-retardant additives contribute to more, and more toxic, smoke than nontreated products.

Credit: Courtesy of FIT
Credit: Courtesy of FIT

In all, the agency’s report concluded that “fire retardant additives did decrease the overall fire hazard of their host products.”

“This work determined that escape time for building occupants can rise significantly with the use of fire retardants,” says NIST Senior Research Scientist Richard G. Gann, who organized the project. “Fire retardants can decrease the amount of a flammable product—such as foam used to cushion furniture—that burns and can slow the rate of that burning.”

“Flame-retardant chemicals are effective. There’s no doubt about it,” says Matthew S. Blais, director of the Fire Technology Research Laboratory at Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), a nonprofit, independent testing laboratory in San Antonio. Recent fire-testing results at SWRI facilities for the National Institute of Justice, part of the Department of Justice, back up his assertions.

The details are in a 2012 report, “Reducing Uncertainty of Quantifying the Burning Rate of Upholstered Furniture,” which offers guidelines for how best to estimate the burning rate of upholstered furniture and quantify the uncertainty of the predictions. Such information is useful to law enforcement in arson investigations, for example.

The SWRI team conducted a series of 79 full-scale fire tests using upholstered-furniture mock-ups made from foam, fabrics, and other materials available off-the-shelf in the San Antonio area. The idea was to test materials in common use for furniture and furniture components nationwide. Next, the team made mock-up cushions constructed with either flame-retardant-treated or non-flame-retardant-treated cotton, as well as one of six padding materials—including TB 117-compliant polyurethane foam. The team was trying to determine heat release rates for the various types of furniture materials tested, which can be useful in documenting how individual fires may have started and spread.

Urethane-foam-filled furnishings have the potential to contribute tremendous energy to a fire. When not protected with flame retardants, Blais says, these materials burn rapidly, eventually yielding enough heat that everything else in a room ignites. The study revealed that untreated foams needed to burn for as few as 200 seconds to reach this so-called flashover point.

The tests proved that adding a cover treated with flame retardants over the foam adds a layer of defense that delays transition to flashover to almost 800 seconds from initiation, Blais says. And the additional use of TB 117-rated urethane foams prevented sustained burning, he adds. “The impact of adding flame retardant to the covering material and urethane foams adds defense in depth to the furnishing that may save lives. Ten minutes is a lot of escape time.”

With the results of these and other fire tests in mind, Joel Tenney, director of advocacy for ICL Industrial Products, a manufacturer of flame-retardant compounds, says: “In California, there has been a rush to say, ‘Let’s avoid chemicals,’ rather than have a high fire-safety standard. Going away from the open-flame challenge is the wrong direction.”

“We think the weight of the evidence supports that flame retardants are effective,” says Jackson Morrill, director of the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, which is part of the chemical industry association American Chemistry Council. “We believe in a fact-based, science-based dialogue. To say flame retardants don’t work—that’s a massive misperception.” He says the dialogue on flame retardants must include discussions of fire safety.

Blum and her supporters, however, cite a 1997 Consumer Product Safety Commission study of TB 117-compliant chairs, “Upholstered Furniture Flammability: Fires Ignited by Small Open Flames and Cigarettes.” It reports that the TB 117 standard “would not, if federally mandated, ensure a substantial reduction in the risk of small open-flame ignition of finished articles of furniture.”

But for Blum it is the toxic potential of flame retardants that is of paramount concern. She first worked on the toxicity of flame retardants in 1977 when, as a postdoc in the laboratory of University of California, Berkeley, chemistry professor Bruce N. Ames, she coauthored a paper with him on flame retardants in children’s sleepwear (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.831254). That work demonstrated the mutagenic and carcinogenic hazards of the flame retardant tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate and contributed to an eventual withdrawal of the chemical in children’s clothing.

Blum praises Ames for his courage to publish strong statements about the hazard to children they uncovered for this flame retardant. She says the experience left her with the impression that whenever strong scientific information is presented, the “correct” public policy decisions will follow.

Then Blum took a long sabbatical from chemistry to climb mountains. Her absence from the field often gives her critics pause when evaluating her chemistry expertise or knowledge of the flame-retardant chemical industry and practices. What’s more, several critics point out that Blum has had a sustained relationship with officials of the Polyurethane Foam Association, another industry group stakeholder that might see cost-saving benefits from a TB 117 revision. Critics also say that Blum has accepted grant money from that group, which Blum confirms. PFA, however, says it only ever gave Blum a one-time speaker fee, not grant money.

After her mountain-climbing career, which includes two books she wrote about her adventures, Blum returned to work on chemistry and health and environmental issues. In 2007, she published a letter in Science detailing her opposition to a variety of compounds related to or that have replaced the polyurethane-foam flame retardant pentaBDE (DOI: 10.1126/science.318.5848.194b). Soon after, furniture manufacturers began to rely on foam treated with Chemtura’s Firemaster products, including those that contain 2-ethylhexyl-2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate (TBB) and bis(2-ethylhexyl)-3,4,5,6-tetrabromophthalate (TBPH).

Blum is proud of her activism and what she clearly sees as a battle between industry profits and public health. And she insists that she is not “antichemical.” “I love chemistry,” she says, and she believes in the utility and benefits that many different chemical compounds have contributed to daily life.

She says her experience in the current go-round fighting the use of flame retardants is different from her experience in the 1970s, in terms of the resistance she has encountered to changing the fire standards or getting rid of the chemicals. She sees a conspiracy in industry to keep the chemicals on the market despite knowledge of their hazards, and she claims to have anonymous sources working for flame-retardant manufacturers who can back up her allegations. It would be too risky to put them in touch with C&EN, she says, however, even as anonymous sources.

“Some people have been on a crusade against flame-retardant chemicals for years,” scoffs chemist Marcelo M. Hirschler of GBH International, a fire-safety consulting firm. On the basis of a poor or deliberately misleading understanding of chemistry, he says, they will seize on the possible toxicity of one problematic molecule—pentaBDE, for example—to damn whole classes of related chemical entities. As a chemist, he says, Blum should know that even slight variations in chemical structure can result in vastly different toxicology profiles for related chemicals.

Blum often cites the structural similarity of compounds related to pentaBDE, for example, to drive home her message about the potential toxicity of other brominated flame retardants. She is perhaps not wrong to do so, because even EPA uses structure-based predictive toxicology to prioritize the flame retardants it must examine in more detail for possible toxic effects.

Like many fire-safety experts, Hirschler says that, questions and concerns about flame retardants’ toxicity aside, tough fire-safety standards force innovation. Already, he points out, numerous research efforts are under way to develop new flame retardants that can be used in lower amounts or have greatly improved toxicity profiles (see page 39).

If the revision of TB 117 stays as is, Hirschler says, “it will be the first time in the U.S. that the law lowers safety. That never happens. We always go in the opposite direction.” He says both the polyurethane foam industry and the furniture industry, both of which typically absorb the cost of flame-retardant treatments without passing it along to consumers, have a stake in seeing the standard revised downward. Two-thirds of all furniture sold in the U.S. is TB 117-compliant, he says. If the standard is lowered, “why should furniture manufacturers make 117-compliant products? They won’t.”

Hirschler is not alone in his alarm and deep concern about possible changes to TB 117. Nearly every fire-safety, fire-test-standards, and flame-retardant-materials expert C&EN has spoken with over the past few months has expressed anger and frustration with Blum’s campaign and what they say is a foolish drive to weaken the TB 117 standard because of chemophobia. The California fire standards for upholstered furniture work, they say, and the state’s own fire statistics since the rule went into effect back them up.

Indeed, Gordon H. Damant, the chemist who in the 1970s wrote the original version of TB 117, says, “There was a significant decline in furniture fires and subsequent deaths over the first 10-year period” of using flame-retardant chemicals.

In a paper commemorating the 20th anniversary of California’s flammability standards for upholstered furniture, Damant wrote that, in 1974, the year prior to implementation of TB 117, “there were about 2,500 upholstered-furniture fire incidents in California. The number of furniture fires had declined about 50% by 1987, and by 1991, the last year for which a full year of data were available, furniture fires had dropped to about 800” (Proc. Int. Conf. Fire Safety 1994,19, 1).

Annually, upholstered furniture is the number-one cause of death and injuries from fire in the U.S., says Damant, who is now retired from California’s Department of Consumer Affairs and runs his own fire-safety consulting firm in Sacramento. Some 30,000 people in the U.S. have died in furniture fires since 1972, he says. People who want to get rid of flame retardants “want to ignore all that. They are more concerned about what might happen” in terms of potential human health effects from exposure to the chemicals.

As a career public servant, Damant is also angered by the accusations that people who want to uphold or even strengthen TB 117 are somehow tainted by industry money. “I have seen lots of cases where many children die in fire,” Damant says, his voice rising. “I don’t see any recognition of that from people who want to get rid of flame retardants. They are not willing to look at the facts.”

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