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Flame Retardants In Furniture Foam Are Not Effective, CPSC And UL Officials Tell Senate Subcommittee

Safety groups say the chemical mixtures offer little protection

by Cheryl Hogue
July 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 30

Credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Jones, left, watches as Tenenbaum describes a flammability test with a foam-padded furniture model.
James Jones, EPA acting assistant administrator for chemical safety & pollution prevention (left) watches as Inez M. Tenebaum, chairman of the CPSC, testifies about furniture flammability at a July 17 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services & General Government.
Credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Jones, left, watches as Tenenbaum describes a flammability test with a foam-padded furniture model.

Foam-padded furniture containing flame retardants burns almost as fast as identical furniture without these chemicals, officials of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) told Congress last week.

Inez M. Tenenbaum, CPSC chair, and August W. Schaefer, UL senior vice president and public safety officer, based this conclusion on tests conducted independently by their organizations. They described results of the studies at a hearing on upholstered-furniture flammability and flame-retardant chemicals convened by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services & General Government. Panel Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called the hearing in response to a recent investigative series by the Chicago Tribune on flame retardants.

Citing a May CPSC report, Tenenbaum described results of the commission’s open-flame ignition tests on upholstered chairs cushioned with polyurethane foam. The report concluded, “A relative difference was noticed in the foams, but the fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significantly greater level of open-flame safety than did the untreated foams.”

In contrast, installation of a fire barrier between the upholstery fabric and the foam “markedly increased the fire safety of the furniture,” the investigation found. The barrier used in the CPSC test was a fabric composed of fiberglass, modacrylic, and polyester.

Self-funded research by UL, a nonprofit, independent product-testing organization, came to similar conclusions: Barriers offer significant fire-safety advantages, but flame retardants in foam don’t, Schaefer said.

“These flame retardants don’t even do what they’re meant to do,” observed subcommittee member Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Also at the hearing, an EPA official described how one compound used as a flame retardant in polyurethane foam demonstrates the shortcomings of the federal chemical control law—the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The chemical is 2-ethylhexyl-2,3,4,5-tetra­bromo­­benzoate (TBB), a component of Firemaster 550. This mixture was introduced by specialty chemical maker Chemtura to replace the widely discontinued flame retardant pentabromodiphenyl ether, which is persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.

In 1995, the agency’s new chemicals program reviewed TBB before it was commercialized, said James J. Jones, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. But EPA’s review failed to identify that TBB is persistent and bioaccumulative, he said. These characteristics of TBB came to light only in recent years, when the substance was found in household dust, sewage sludge, and Arctic animals. Jones pointed out that under TSCA, the agency has the burden of determining whether a chemical poses a risk; manufacturers do not have to demonstrate that their substances are safe.

TBB “is an example that highlights the critical need for the agency to have greater evidence that new chemicals are safe prior to commercialization,” Jones said. But for this to happen, Congress would have to revise TSCA.

Jones added that TBB is among the chemicals EPA intends to assess in 2013 to determine whether they should be regulated (C&EN, June 11, page 30).


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