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Furniture Fire Fights Continue

Regulation: California’s proposed new standard for furniture is already generating heat

by William G. Schulz
February 14, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 7

Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
The aftermath of a smolder test on an upholstered armchair.
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 aftermath of a smolder test on an upholstered armchair.

New fire-safety standards for upholstered furniture were issued by the State of California on Feb. 8, igniting immediate controversy. That’s because the proposed standard, known as Technical Bulletin 117-2013 (TB 117-2013), eliminates an open-flame test for foam used within furniture, relying instead on tests to evaluate a cigarette smolder, specifically the ignition resistance of upholstery cover fabrics, barriers, and filling materials. The change means manufacturers will no longer have to use flame-retardant chemicals in foam to meet the standard.

Anti-flame-retardant-chemical activists are cheering the move, saying it will improve human and environmental health by eliminating the need to use a variety of compounds, some of which have been shown to have varying degrees of toxicity. But fire-safety scientists and chemical makers say the proposed new standard lowers fire safety because it tests only optimal conditions. Any evidence of toxicity, they say, needs to be balanced against a very real fire threat from candles, lighters, and other open-flame hazards.

“Regrettably, if this proposed regulation moves forward, it will reverse a fire-safety standard that has provided an important layer of protection to Californians for over 35 years,” the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, says. The California standard for furniture fire safety is the de facto national standard because of the size of the California market and because it is among the strongest state regulations for furniture fire safety.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based Green Science Policy Institute, headed by chemist and activist Arlene Blum, calls the proposed new standard “a win-win-win for fire safety, health, and environment.” Blum has long advocated a revision of the standard that would remove the open-flame challenge and obviate the need for retardant chemicals, which she contends are unacceptably toxic.

The new standard, which is nearing the end of a lengthy process for enactment, is posted for public comment for 45 days. Regulators will be required to deal with any comments or concerns not previously dealt with before they can issue a final draft of the standard.



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