In the market for some new furniture? That couch or armchair is changing — for the better, many health and environmental advocates say.
For that, we can thank California.
For nearly four decades, the Golden State has had a flammability standard for foam in upholstered furniture, requiring that it withstand 12 seconds of exposure to a small flame.
Since manufacturers don’t want to make separate products for each state, this became the de facto national standard. To meet it, they began using flame retardants, chemicals that, as time went by, were viewed by many as potentially dangerous.
Some contended the flame retardants didn’t work as intended, and simply exposed people to chemicals that mounting evidence has linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and lower IQs in children.
The chemicals in the furniture wind up in the dust in our homes, which is particularly worrisome for our children, who crawl on the floor and put their hands in their mouths.
The chemicals are also persistent in the environment. They have accumulated in fish, birds, and mammals from the equator to the poles.
On Jan. 1, 2014, new standards went into effect in California, although manufacturers have a year to comply. Furniture no longer has to withstand an open flame, just a smoldering cigarette — a more likely occurrence.
Flame retardants haven’t been banned, but California officials and the American Home Furnishings Alliance, which supports the new standard, said the chemicals would no longer be needed. The alliance said some manufacturers have already begun transitioning to foam with no flame-retardant chemicals.
Consumers have been exerting market pressure. In early June, that pressure increased. Kaiser Permanente, a leading health-care provider, pledged to stop buying furniture treated with flame retardants. “Where there is credible evidence that a material or product we’re using might result in harm to the environment or public health, we work to replace it with safer alternatives,” said Kathy Gerwig, the company’s environmental stewardship officer.
This is no small commitment. Kaiser spends $30 million a year on furnishings.
Gary Cohen, president of two industry-funded nonprofits, Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, praised the decision, calling flame retardants “basically the new lead in our society.”
Kaiser will have strict procurement policies. For regular people seeking to avoid flame retardants, it’s not so easy.
Any furniture with a label that says the product is “TB117 compliant” means it meets the old standard, and likely has flame retardants. If it meets “TB117-2013,” the new standard, it may or may not have the chemicals.
The Green Science Policy Institute has in-depth information about flame retardants and consumer tips on its website, www.greensciencepolicy.org.
Meanwhile, another advocacy group, the Center for Environmental Health, has released a report card on companies that make items for the most vulnerable of us — babies.
The new California rules exempted 15 baby products, including changing pads, play mats, high chairs, baby carriers, and booster seats, from any flammability standards because they posed no fire risks.
So the center asked major companies if they had eliminated flame retardants and if they were informing consumers on their labels or their websites.
Eight companies have eliminated the chemicals, but only two, Naturepedic and MamaDoo Kids, inform consumers. Eight other companies did not respond to multiple requests.
As new information becomes available, the center plans to post updates on its website, www.ceh.org.
Jeffrey Ashley, a Philadelphia University chemistry professor who has studied chemicals of concern in consumer products, including flame retardants in infant car seats, praised the project. “This is a good way to inform consumers,” he said.
Even so, he said self-reporting doesn’t replace scientific testing, because some manufacturers might not even be aware of what’s being used in their supply chain.
“People are becoming more aware of what’s in their products and adopting more of a European and Canadian attitude — that they’re not all safe, and certainly they have not all been analyzed for their safety,” said Ashley, who has two young sons. “We’re all becoming a little more wary.”