It's Official: Toxic Flame Retardants No Longer Required in Furniture

Starting next year, shoppers will be able to buy sofas that don't contain flame retardant chemicals.
Starting next year, shoppers will be able to buy sofas that don't contain flame retardant chemicals.

Governor Jerry Brown has revised a controversial law he signed into existence during his first stint as governor, back in 1975.

The obscure-sounding "Technical Bulletin 117", or TB 117, effectively required furniture manufacturers to inject flame-retardant chemicals into all upholstered furniture sold in the state.

With California's law a de facto national standard, a typical sofa now hits the market with two to three pounds of chemicals that can cause cancer and reproductive problems.

Starting in January, 2014, a new flame retardant standard will take effect, eliminating the need for furniture makers to inject the chemicals into upholstered chairs, sofas, and other items.

Flame-retardants may also disappear from baby gear, such as booster seats and changing pads, which will no longer be subject to flammability standards.

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"It's wonderful, after years of work, to see this become a reality" said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California Berkeley and director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

"I was practically screaming with happiness," said Blum, who's been working on the flame retardant issue since the 1970s.

The new law, called "TB 117-2013" doesn't forbid furniture manufacturers to use the chemicals. Instead, it sets a new flammability test -- known as a "smolder test -- that furniture makers can meet without using the flame-retardant chemicals.

Instead of injecting chemicals into upholstery foam, manufacturers can line furniture with a fire shield, or use flame-retardant fabrics, which do not emit toxic gases.

In its justification for the new rules, state officials cited studies suggesting that furniture foam treated with flame-retardant chemicals can actually be more hazardous in a fire.

"Flame retardant foam can actually increase smolder propensity," wrote officials with the state's Bureau of Home Furnishings, which sets furniture standards.

Starting in January, furniture makers will be able to sell furniture with the new "TB 117-2013" tag.

Blum says chemical-wary shoppers should look for the new tag, and then ask furniture sellers whether the sofa or chair has been treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

The revised law could also effectively remove flame-retardant chemicals from a number of children’s products -- including changing pads, nursing pillows, infant swings, strollers -- all of which are exempt from flammability standards as of January.

"We're in touch with most of the furniture manufacturing associations and the juvenile products manufacturers associations, and they have told us that their manufacturers are planning to remove the flame retardant chemicals, once it's legally possible," says Blum.

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