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Avinash Kar’s Blog

Prepare to say goodbye to toxic couches

Avinash Kar

Posted November 21, 2013 in Health and the Environment

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California just finalized new furniture fire safety standards that will provide greater fire safety without the need for toxic flame retardant chemicals. It represents a big step forward in the effort to protect the health of our families by getting rid of chemicals that build up in our bodies and are linked to increased risk of cancer, infertility and learning problems. This win for public health reflects the tireless efforts of a broad and diverse coalition, including NRDC, that has been working on this issue for years. Tune in this Monday (November 25) for the Toxic Hot Seat, a documentary film airing on HBO which tells the story of the efforts to change California’s outdated fire safety standards for furniture.

An obscure California regulation has led to the use of toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals in furniture in California and also around the country and beyond. Unfortunately, this stupid use of dangerous chemicals has not provided additional fire safety, but it has exposed people to health risks. Because of the widespread use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture and other products, Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than people elsewhere in the world and California children have some of the highest levels ever measured.

The old regulation did not even protect against the cause of the vast majority of fires—smoldering materials, like cigarettes. Under that regulation, the chemicals are added to the foam inside furniture. But, fires start on the outer fabric, usually from smoldering cigarettes. Adding flame retardant chemicals to furniture foam doesn’t result in fires burning more slowly, and it actually releases more toxic smoke and gases when there is a fire—putting firefighters, in particular, at increased risk.

The new standards will focus on protecting against fires started by smoldering materials, such as cigarettes, which are the most common cause of furniture fires. Because they can be met without the use of flame retardant chemicals, by using smolder-resistant fabrics, the new standards will also remove the pressure on furniture manufacturers to add toxic flame retardant chemicals to furniture. Eighty-five percent of fabric coverings already meet the new standards.

Based on the state’s announcement, furniture manufacturers might be able to discontinue the use of flame retardants in their furniture as early as next year.

Consumers will still need to be vigilant. The new regulation does not ban the use of flame retardant chemicals; it just removes the primary reason for their use in furniture. Consumers can protect themselves and their families by asking furniture retailers and manufacturers whether the furniture they are considering has been produced without the use of flame retardants. NRDC and our coalition partners will call on furniture manufacturers and retailers to be leaders in the transition, by moving away from toxic flame retardants as soon as possible and providing full disclosure to consumers.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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