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Spring Cleaning: Dusting Toxins Off Couches

Proposed California bill aims to inform consumers and reduce use of toxic flame retardants

Ever wondered if your couch was filled with toxic flame retardants? If you have, chances are you weren’t able to find out because the manufacturer wasn’t required to inform you.

dog lying on couch Photo by This Year's LoveThe bill requires manufacturers to stop using flame retardents in furniture stuffing.

Fortunately, that may be changing. Last month, California State Senator Mark Leno introduced SB 1019, a bill that would require furniture manufacturers to label furniture that has been treated with flame retardants and to inform consumers of such use at the point of sale. If passed, the proposed bill will be implemented in January 2015, and would contribute to a broad effort in California to reduce the use of toxic flame retardants.

Flame retardant use expanded in California under Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), which was implemented in 1975 and required furniture filling to be resistant to an open flame, encouraging the use of flame retardants among furniture manufacturers. (Yes, even furniture gets it’s own regulations.)

Over the past few years, however, research has called into question the fire safety benefits of flame retardants, while also pointing to the serious health and environmental risks associated with exposure to flame retardant chemicals.

With respect to fire safety, recent studies have shown that fireproofing furniture filling doesn’t do a whole lot of good. “It turns out, on the fire safety side, [TB-117] actually wasn’t a very good regulation,” said Veena Singla, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “What they found was that adding flame retardants to the inside [of furniture] doesn’t provide any meaningful fire safety benefits.” In other words, once the outside fabric of a couch goes up in flames, it doesn’t matter how much flame retardant has been doused on the fillings. The couch is going to burn.

In addition to their questionable fire-safety benefits, flame retardants have been linked to a variety of environmental and health ills.  “They produce health and environmental concerns,” said Singla. “The chemicals are added to the filling, but they aren’t chemically attached or bound to it, so they continuously migrate out of the filling into the air and dust, and that is how people get exposed to these chemicals.”

Once released into the air and dust, these chemicals persist in the environment and have been shown to negatively impact wildlife. The have also been linked to health problems in humans, including cancer, hyperactivity, decreased fertility, hormone disruption, and lower IQ.  Children are particularly vulnerable, because they often play on the ground and are more likely to ingest chemical-laden dust. 

Low-income communities and communities of color also face elevated exposure levels, possibly due to the use of second-hand furniture, more time spent indoors, or inadequate home ventilation systems. Firefighters represent another highly exposed group and have been on the frontlines of toxics advocacy in California.

In 2012, following repeated legislative failures for regulatory reform (and a $23 million lobbying effort in California by the flame retardant industry), Governor Brown directed the Bureau of Home Furnishings to change the regulation in an attempt to reduce the use of these harmful chemicals. The new standards (TB 117-2013), which became effective in January 2014, now focuses on the outer fabric of couches and chairs, rather than furniture fillings. That means furniture manufacturers can comply with the regulation by choosing flame-resistant outer fabrics rather than treating furniture filling with highly toxic flame retardants.

TB 117-2013 doesn’t prohibit flame retardants, and neither would SB 1019. Because of lax testing requirements, flat-out bans are hard to come by. “Certainly some flame retardants have been restricted or banned,” said Singla. “But what happens then is that other chemicals are brought in to replace the banned chemicals. There is no minimum safety testing required in terms of possible long-term health effects, so when new chemicals come in, we just don’t have the information we need in order to try to restrict them or ban them one by one.”

In the absence of minimum safety testing requirements, the disclosure requirements under SB 1019 would be an important consumers’ rights victory, and hopefully reduce the use — and resulting environmental and health impacts — of flame retardants throughout California.  

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and and writes about climate change, environmental justice, and food policy. Follow her on Twitter @ZoeLoftusFarren

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