California Proposes New Fire Safety Rules To Reduce Use of Toxic Flame Retardants

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LOS ANGELES--A California agency released a proposal Feb. 8 designed to reduce the use of chemical flame retardants in upholstered furniture.  

The proposed fire safety standards would replace the strict flammability standard that requires filling material in furniture to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. The new standard would involve smoldering tests for cover fabric.

The 1970s-era standard led to the widespread use of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), in furniture. High levels of those chemicals are now being found in household dust and in human blood and breast milk. Some studies have linked the chemicals to developmental and neurological problems and other health effects.

California is the only state with a mandatory flammability standard for household furniture. Manufacturers around the globe comply with California's standard so they can ship their furniture and other products anywhere in the United States.

In June, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) directed the state Bureau of Electronics and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to review the flammability standard following a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune alleging that chemical manufacturers had thwarted efforts to ban the flame retardant chemicals by misleading lawmakers about their effectiveness.

Focus on Cover Fabrics

The proposed new standard focuses on decreasing the fire potential of what is currently considered the primary ignition source--cover fabrics, the bureau said in its Initial Statement of Reasons (ISOR) for revising Technical Bulletin 117.

Also, the proposed standard would save manufacturers money by duplicating an existing voluntary testing standard, “as opposed to implementing a brand new standard,’’ the bureau said.

Release of the proposal opens a public comment period that will run through March 26. The bureau has scheduled a 10 a.m. public hearing that day at the Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento.

Manufacturers would have to begin meeting the new smolder-test standard on July 1, 2014, according to the draft regulations. Products made prior to the effective date could continue to be sold in the state.

As proposed, draft Technical Bulletin 117-2013 is a performance standard that does not prescribe the use of any specific material or manufacturing requirements.

It is based, in part, on a performance standard established by the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) called Standard Test Methods for Cigarette Ignition Resistance of Components of Upholstered Furniture (ASTM E-1353-08a), the bureau said. That test is used around the world.

The proposed standard includes specific testing methods for cover fabrics, barrier materials, and resilient filling materials.

Basically, the new tests would result in the use of barrier materials to prevent ignition.

Compliance Currently Widespread

As much as 85 percent of the nation's manufacturers already comply with the proposed standard, according to the bureau.

“With such large stakeholder participation, it substantially reduces the need for laboratory testing and associated costs, deeming it less burdensome on manufacturers,’’ the bureau said in the ISOR.

An additional 17 types of baby and infant products, such as car seats, changing pads, highchairs, and crib mattresses would be exempt under the proposal. The current standard already exempts strollers, infant carriers, and nursing pillows, the bureau said.

All these items require less padding and are less likely to be ignited or come in contact with an ignition source, the bureau said. Also, manufacturers would no longer be required to include exemption labels on the products.

In its review of the existing standard, the bureau found that furniture makers meet the existing open-flame testing standard largely by treating foam with flame retardants. The bureau also found that in an actual fire, upholstery cover fabric is the first to ignite and, once the cover fabric burns, the foam quickly ignites.

“The Bureau has determined that the current standard does not adequately address the flammability performance of the upholstery cover fabric and its interactions with underlying filling materials upon ignition, whether by an open flame or a smoldering source,” the agency said in the ISOR. “Furthermore, flame retardant foam can actually increase smolder propensity.”

Groups Seek Bans on Chemicals

Public health and environmental groups have pushed for bans on brominated and chlorinated flame retardants.

Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told BNA Feb. 7, said the bureau's first proposal in June indicated the state would opt for the smoldering test over the open-flame tests. She said the open-flame tests have been shown to be ineffective and have led to the use of chemical flame retardants.

In 2004, California enacted legislation banning the use of two forms of PBDEs, bans that took effect in 2008.

The manufacturer of the two chemicals, pentabrominated diphenyl ether (penta-BDE) and octabrominated diphenyl ether (octa-BDE), voluntarily withdrew them from the U.S. market due to concerns about their capacity to bioaccumulate, persistence in the environment, and potential toxicity.

Legislative efforts to ban other flame retardants have failed in the state, however.

The American Chemistry Council has defended the use of the chemicals, claiming the agents are safe and help save lives.

Meanwhile, the Center for Environmental Health has threatened to sue national retailers and manufacturers of children's sleeping mats, mattresses, sleeping pads and other products for allegedly failing to warn consumers that their products contain high levels of a flame retardant the state has linked to cancer.

The Oakland-based group began forwarding 60-day notices to several businesses in December warning them that the products contain the chemical tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, also called TDCPP or chlorinated Tris, which the state listed as carcinogen under Proposition 65 in 2011 (36 CRR 1299, 12/10/12).

The Center for Environmental Health notified additional retailers and manufacturers in early January that they had not complied with Proposition 65 warning requirements.

By Carolyn Whetzel  

The new draft Technical Bulletin 117 is available

The bureau's Initial Statement of Reasons is available at

Monographs, memoranda, and other documents related to the proposed rulemaking are available at

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