Distorted science. Fabricated watchdog groups. False testimonies. Decades of public deception. It’s the stuff of a summer blockbuster — but truth is stranger than fiction, they say.
And so it is with the story of how, over the course of nearly 40 years, flame retardant substances ended up in nearly every piece of furniture, every electronic, every household ware and article of clothing in the U.S. In a four-part series from 2012, the Chicago Tribune used thousands of government, scientific and internal documents to expose the intricate web of lies that made it possible for chemical companies to fill American homes (cars, classrooms, hospitals…) with compounds known to cause cancer, disrupt sexual and neurological development and impair fertility.
But things seem to be moving in a new, less toxic direction as the California law that has required California manufacturers to include flame retardant chemicals in their products, the law that essentially set the national standard for furniture production since 1975 —Technical Bulletin 117 — was revised last year to allow California manufacturers to produce upholstered furniture without flame retardant foam. The revised standard, TB 117-2013, went into effect on Jan. 1, giving many environmentalists, toxicologists and concerned citizens hope that the Golden State will again lead the way — this time on a less poisonous path. And taking things one step further, if everything goes well on the floor of the California Senate in the last week of August, furniture manufacturers who sell in California will also be required to label whether furnishings do or do not contain flame retardant chemicals, yet another promising step forward for the nation as a whole.
“Chemicals are continually coming out of furniture and dropping into dust and you get dust on your hands and you get [the chemicals] in your body,” says Arlene Blum, an environmental scientist and executive director and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif. Blum conducted research in the late 1970s that led to a flame retardant known as chlorinated tris being removed from children’s pajamas because the compound was capable of damaging DNA and perhaps causing cancer. Blum founded the institute in 2008 after she learned that the same compound was being used in furniture and baby products. Blum has since been working to stop the use of flame retardants in home furnishings and children’s products.
“California is the only state that can make flame retardant laws easily because we’re the only state that has a bureau,” Blum says. “After our great earthquake and fire in [1906, California developed] a Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation that could make fire standards, and no other state has that. In the ’70s … the idea came about that maybe we should have a standard for furniture, but it turns out it was not a good standard. I think TB 117 was done out of good motives, but it has not been a good standard.”
The original standard required California furniture manufacturers to use foam that could withstand a small open flame, like that of a candle, for at least 12 seconds — the material failed if it ignited. To avoid failing the “open flame test,” manufacturers used ominous-sounding halogenated flame retardants containing chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon (like chlorinated tris or penta-BDE).
And while, as Blum says, no other U.S. state has any comparable standard, California’s market is so large that manufacturers across the nation chose to meet what was essentially the most stringent standard in the country in order to produce efficiently.
TB 117 not only mandated the use of flame retardant chemicals in the foam padding of upholstered furniture in California, but also its application on foam used in baby products. And use of chemical flame retardants spread to more products. Research from the Green Science Policy Institute found that penta-BDE was being used at levels of 3 to 6 percent of the weight of a piece of foam (that’s often measurable in pounds of chemicals injected into home furnishings). Octa-BDE was being used in plastics for circuit boards and small appliances, and deca-BDE was used for televisions and computer casings as well as in textiles.
“In 1999 and 2001, 98 [percent] and 95 [percent] respectively, of the usage of penta-BDE was in North America, in large part to meet TB 117,” reads the Green Science Policy Institute’s 2013 report.
According to Richard Gann, a senior research scientist emeritus in the Fire Research Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the roots of TB 117 trace back to the years just following World War II.
“American families … started buying more fur nishings and a lot of the older wood furniture got replaced by softer, more comfortable stuff,” Gann says. “A lot of those things, whether they were wall coverings, carpets, whatever, were made from the synthetics, many of which were developed as part of the war effort. The polymer industry was in a period of incredible scientific growth. All sorts of different [polymers] were created and the ones that found a practical use flourished. At that point we started to see fires become more of a part of consciousness in society.”
Along with this shift to plusher home furnishings came a steep rise in cigarette smoking. Gann notes that television personalities, such as news commentator John Cameron Swayze, pushed smoking. Swayze, on NBC’s “Camel News Caravan,” would announce which military unit got that week’s free Camel cigarettes.
“Cigarette companies understood this was an approachable group of habit-forming men and they would come home and spread the habit,” says Gann. “Here we have this congruence of awareness of fire problems, more furnishings, more smoking — it was not hard for people operating [the chemical industry] at the time to say, ‘We’ve seen a lot of cigarette-initiated fires.’ Tampering with the cigarettes didn’t work. What I’ve been told is the cigarette industry was better organized and funded than furniture industry.”
And the proverbial fuel was added to the fire: Big Tobacco, with all its money, was able to easily shift the focus away from deaths caused by cigarette fires while the chemical industry created a profitable market for their products in the form of flame retardant chemicals that could be added to foams for home furnishings.
But as the decades passed, concern began to grow about the effects flame retardant chemicals were having on human health and the environment. Blum’s research removed chlorinated tris from children’s pajamas, but chlorinated tris and penta- BDE were still pervasive in furnishings and plastics. Research found that these chemicals leached out of landfills and into the environment — researchers found flame retardant chemicals in the Arctic. To add insult to injury, it turns out the chemicals don’t actually provide any valuable protection from fire — they just help manufacturers pass the TB 117 open flame test. And when furnishings treated with chemical flame retardants do catch fire, they increase carbon monoxide and soot, the most frequent causes of firerelated deaths.
With all of this evidence mounting and calls from environmentalists to change standards growing louder, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced new flammability standards for California in November.
The revised test, TB 117-2013, replaced the 12-second open flame test with a smolder-only test that exposes a mock up piece of furniture to a lighted cigarette. A material fails the test if it becomes an open flame or if it is still smoldering after 45 minutes.
According to Patricia Bowling, vice president of communications for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade organization for the furniture industry, the response within the industry has been positive and the change has been a long time coming.
“Back in the 1970s when California was developing their flammability standard, we proposed a different standard based on smolder resistance, because in the ’70s, and still today, the primary cause for home furnishing fire is ignition from a smoldering source — a cigarette,” says Bowling. “The smolder test addresses the primary cause of fire. The new TB 117 is based largely on that standard. We were delighted to see finally, after all this time, a standard addressing the primary cause [of fire in home furnishings].”
But environmentalists like Blum still harbor concern that the federal government will implement a national standard that will keep the country mired in toxic flame retardants.
“Right now there is, unfortunately, work toward a federal standard that would really be problematic, I think, that would lead to more flame retardant, so it really is complicated,” Blum says.
Blum and other environmentalists point to the fact that after the U.S. began to phase penta-BDE out of consumer products beginning in 2003, replacement chemicals haven’t proven to be any better, often coming from the same family of compounds, used at similar concentrations, and are linked to cancer and hormone disruption just like penta-BDEs. A recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Duke University detected a biomarker of TDCIPP, a chlorinated tris flame retardant that has replaced penta- DBEs, in the urine of all 26 children and 22 parents who participated in the study. Because children are commonly on the floor, putting their hands in their mouths, their levels of TDCIPP were, on average, nearly five times that of their mothers. One extreme case showed a child with a level 23 times higher than the mother.
When asked about the importance of the study, Blum clarifies before she answers.
“By the way, this study is of cholorinated tris, which is a replacement, but what was also used back in the ’70s in kids’ pajamas,” she says. “It’s really pretty awful. But if you know about it, you can hope to change it. That’s really the hope, that with this information things can be changed. I think it’s a really important study. I think people didn’t really know that chemical was chlorinated tris because the name has sort of changed, but that’s what it is.”
Johanna Congleton, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group who contributed to the recent TDCIPP study, says that Environmental Working Group hopes that any national standard will not keep the country’s furniture manufacturers bound to heavy use of flame retardants.
“We hope that any national standard would focus on, first of all, the main causes of fire-related injury and death, which is smoldering sources,” Congleton says.
But Patti Davis, a spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency tasked with protecting consumers against things like toxic chemicals in couches, says that while the agency hasn’t come to any definitive conclusion, they are working on a standard that includes both smolder and small open flames tests, but she says the commission will not require flame retardant chemicals to meet these tests.
“We have a mattress standard in place since 2007 that is the same type of performance standard that doesn’t require [flame retardant] chemicals,” Davis says. “We’ve found that the [mattress] industry has responded [without using chemicals] in terms of building in barriers inside of mattresses.”
However, it is up to the industry to develop ways in which to avoid using flame retardant chemicals, and if a national standard requires manufacturers to pass an open flame test but doesn’t prohibit them from using flame retardant chemicals to do so, U.S. consumers could see more of the same old toxic furniture.
“Something important to note, is that [TB 117-2013] doesn’t prohibit them [from using chemicals] in any way,” says Congleton. “We are hoping that manufacturers will move away from their use, but the decision to do that is voluntary. One of the things we are advocating for is if these chemicals are used, we’d like products to be labeled so consumers can identify what they are buying.”
And, trailblazing once again, during the last week of August California’s Senate will vote on Senate Bill 1019, a consumer right-to-know bill that will let people known whether the furniture they are purchasing contains flame retardant chemicals through labels on furniture. Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director at the Center for Environmental Health, says that the new labeling initiative would also provide language that lets consumers know that flame retardant chemicals are associated with adverse health effects.
“So we want consumers to understand — some people might think, well flame retardant, that sounds like a good thing, and they need to understand [these chemicals] are not needed to get protection and they are related to health effects,” Levin says.
While Levin acknowledges that TB 117-2013 and SB 1019 only apply to manufactures who sell in California, she and other proponents of the bill believe it will change a good part of the country.
“I think it’s unusual to get a 39-year-old law to change, so this really is a big deal and a great thing,” Blum says of the revisions to TB 117, but she warns that people concerned with chemicals in their couch should be proactive as they try to purge their homes of flame retardant chemicals.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that right now we’re still in quote ‘a messy transition,’ and if they want to reduce the flame retardants in their house by buying new furniture they should probably wait a little while,” she says.