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Jan Lee headshot

Survey: Furniture Companies Dropping Flame Retardants

Words by Jan Lee

Big changes are afoot in the California furniture market. A survey conducted by the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health and design firm HDR Architecture shows that many furniture manufacturers have dropped, or are in the process of removing chemical flame retardants from their ingredients lists. Their manufacturing changes CEH says, are in response to the state’s recent updates to laws that govern how flammability standards are measured, and whether manufacturers can opt out of including chemical flame retardants in their products.

According to CEH, of 56 office furniture producers surveyed in a recent poll, 12 say they have already removed chemical flame retardants (CFR) from their furniture. This includes Arcadia and Global, which are largely known for their office and home retail products, and David Edward, which produces office and healthcare furniture. Three other companies, Haworth, Martin Battrud and Herman Miller, say they expect to be CFR-free by 2015. Eight others said they are planning to eliminate the chemicals but needed more time to respond to the survey.

In January Technical Bulletin 117-2013 went into effect, removing the requirements for manufacturing companies to include CFRs in their products. In turn, changes were made to the way that furniture is tested for flammability. A mandatory smolder test now determines whether the product is fire-safe, rather than whether it contains specified flame retardants. The smolder test also encourages manufacturers to seek out outer materials that tend to be more flame resistant, like wool, hemp or plastics, and to move away from those materials that aren’t as flame resistant. Materials with denser weaves and more impermeable surfaces tend to reduce the smolder capability, and reduce the risk of fire.

In an interview earlier this year, CEH Pollution Prevention Co-Director Judy Levin said the regulatory update made sense, since the real question is whether the furniture is liable to catch fire on the outside, not whether the foam inside the furniture will burn.

“The smolder test actually addresses the major cause of fires, which is smoldering sources like cigarettes on fabrics,” said Levin.

The willingness of furniture companies to drop chemical flame retardants from their product ingredients means companies recognize the value of the new standards, says CEH Executive Director Michael Green.

“It’s clear that the market for safer products made without these toxic chemicals is here. Smart companies know that by eliminating these harmful chemicals they can offer safer products that parents and businesses want for our homes and workplaces,” says Green.

Last week the California Senate passed a bill that would require manufacturers to advise consumers when CFRs are included in furniture. SB 1019, which is expected to become mandatory in January 2015 (when TB 117-2013 also becomes mandatory), requires manufactures to clearly label products when the furniture contains specific toxic substances.

Although TB 117 and SB 1019 only apply to furniture sold in California, they are likely to have some impact outside of the state, since many national brands that market in California may decide to simply label their products universally in order to save production costs.

CEH has announced that until TD 117 and SB 1019 are in mandatory effect, consumers that want to find out which companies are manufacturing furniture without chemical flame retardants can find updates on CEH's website.

Earlier this year, California healthcare NGO Kaiser Permanente announced that it would be transitioning to furniture that does not contain chemical flame retardants, signaling a further willingness by companies to endorse the state’s new methods for meeting flammability standards. Kaiser’s Sustainability Officer Kathy Gerwig said Kaiser was pleased with the legislative changes and has been working with its suppliers to drop chemical flame retardants from its furniture.

“We have terrific suppliers and they have been well aware of our desire to move to safer products for a very long time,” said Gerwig, who said she expected increased support of the new standards would eventually encourage others in healthcare and other marketplaces to do the same.

However, many chemical producers aren’t happy with California’s bold legislative changes. In January of this year, the chemical company Chemtura filed suit against the state saying that the new regulations didn’t conform to the state’s Home Furnishings Act. Last week Sacramento County’s Superior Court responded with a tentative ruling that rejected the plaintiff’s court challenge. Chemtura’s approach, the courts said, “certainly produce absurd and untenable results” for state regulators.

The case was scheduled to be heard on Friday, and the court’s final ruling will no doubt be of great interest to both California businesses and those across the nation.

Update: On Friday, Aug. 29 Sacramento County Superior Court made its decision final, rejecting Chemtura's suit against the State of California.

Image: credit: Jeremy Keith

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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