Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

California has approved a new  flammability standard for residential furniture that is receiving widespread praise among environmentalists.  But we’d like you to examine, with us, some details about the new standard that you’ll need to know to keep you and your family safe from these extremely toxic chemicals.

California is the only state in the U.S. with a mandatory flammability standard for residential furniture.  The original law, TB117, was passed with all the good will in the world – to protect people from dying in house fires by giving them time to escape.  But  as is often the case, there were unintended consequences – we have found that the fire retardant chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility –  and more.  These chemicals  both persist (i.e, last a long time) and  bioaccumulate (i.e., are absorbed at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost – leading to a risk of chronic poisoning) in human systems.  And the final straw:  ironically, the chemicals don’t protect us from fires – they just allow the material not to fail the flammability test.  In actual fires, the materials do burn, and just as massively as untreated foam,  and that releases toxic smoke into the air; one pundit has said that firefighters have more to fear from the smoke  than from the actual fire.

Recently, there has been growing pressure to change California’s “Technical Bulletin 117”, which required furniture manufacturers to inject flame retardant chemicals into the polyurethane foam used in all upholstered furniture sold in the state.  (Please note: the law only pertained to filling materials.) Because California is such a huge market, this law has become a de facto national standard. This pressure was fueled by a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the articles) , and more recently by the HBO film, Toxic Hot Seat, both of which exposed the considerable health risks of flame retardant chemicals, as well as the attempts by the chemical industry to thwart attempts at reform.

Why are flame retardant chemicals required in polyurethane foam?  Answer:  Because polyurethane is basically solid gasoline, which means it’s basically an accelerant.   The old test required that it pass a test by withstanding an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting.  Because this is impossible, the chemicals were added to prevent ignition.

What makes the new TB117-2013 different is that the test methods have changed.  Legislators decided to amend the manner in which flammability is measured.  They reasoned that most house fires start from smoldering cigarettes, which cause the fabric to smolder and catch fire – not from within the cushion in the foam.   They thought that upholstery cover fabrics play a more important role in fire behavior performance than filling materials – flames start on the fabric,  not from deep within the cushions, so the best way to prevent the foam from igniting is to make sure that the surface materials do not smolder in the first place.

So the new test did away with the 12 second open flame test and replaced it with a smolder-only test.  In this test, a lighted cigarette (not an open flame) is placed on the surface of the furniture.   If charring occurs which is 2 inches or less, the furniture is considered to pass.  This is a much easier test to pass than the open flame test.

So the new TB117-2013 enables foam manufacturers to reduce or eliminate flame retardant chemicals – but it doesn’t forbid their use.   The new law was designed to enable manufacturers to eliminate the flame retardants, but if they choose to use them it’s not illegal.  It’s up to manufacturers to decide how they plan to meet the new standard.

Most fabrics used in upholstery today are  synthetics or synthetic blends (natural fiber/synthetic).  And synthetics are created from crude oil – so they too are basically solid gasoline.  An accelerant.  Fabrics can be fire retarded easily and cheaply, and it’s very commonly done.  So although the foam manufacturers can (if they so choose) eliminate flame retardant chemicals in the foam, the burden of passing a smolder test now falls on the fabric.  It seems to me that the flame retardant chemicals are now just going to be found in the fabrics rather than the foam.

The new law was originally supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2014, but manufacturers, who said they “needed the additional times to deplete current supplies and effectuate the new regulatory changes” extended the new date to January 1, 2015.  However, starting in January, 2014, manufacturers will be able to sell furniture with a “TB117-2013” tag – so consumers should make sure to ask whether the sofa or chair has been treated with flame retardant chemicals.  Manufacturers are not required to disclose whether they use flame retardants or not, and few label their products.

If you really want to be sure, the Center for Environmental Health can test foam to detect the presence of flame retardants.  The tests only indicate whether certain elements are present, such as chlorine or bromine.  If so, it is likely the foam was treated with flame retardants.  If you want information on how to use this free service, click here.

Even if the foam is  tested and found not to contain flame retardants, that is by no means a clean bill of health for your sofa, because the fabrics may well contain flame retardants.  And a TB117-2013 label on a piece of furniture is not a guarantee that there are no flame retardants used in the piece.

And we think it’s pretty critical to add this final caveat – flame retardant chemicals are just ONE of the many chemicals which may be found in your fabrics.  Textile production uses a lot of chemicals,  most of which have toxicity profiles as equally unsavory as flame retardants: consider formaldehyde, perfluorocarbons (PFC’s), benzene, APEO’s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and Bisphenol A in synthetics, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.  So to limit yourselves to eliminating flame retardant chemicals from the fabrics or furniture you live with  – as wonderful as that is – means you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

4 thoughts on “What does the new TB117-2013 mean to you?

  1. robo says:

    That’s what I was afraid of, you can not depend on the government or big business to do the right thing, it always falls short of the true end goal. now they will just put flame retardants into the fabric, closer to the surface. the all mighty dollar always interferes with the good for mankind.

  2. JD says:

    My understanding is that polyester can be intrinsically fire retardant – i.e., the fire retardant can be built into the molecular structure, so it does not need topical treatment, and the instrinsic fire retardants are stable and do not leach. I am looking at a sofa that is certified to be free of fire retardants and is Certi-Pur certified, but the fabric is largely polyester. Any thoughts appreciated.

    1. Hi JD – Oh, I have a lot of thoughts!

      Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of these chemicals shown. ( See our blog post about polyester, https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1887&action=edit). So I’m just not a fan.

      To make an intrinsically flame retardant polyester, the most common method is to add brominated flame retardants (BFR’s) to the polymer during the melt phase. This means the chemicals are “trapped” in the polymer. Included in this huge class of chemicals is:
      • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s): DecaBDE, OctaBDE and PentaBDE (neither of which is manufactured anymore)
      • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) – not manufactured anymore
      • Brominated cyclohydrocarbons
      Brominated flame retardants are persistent, accumulate in the food chain, and toxic to both humans and the environment and are suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects, endocrine disruption, cancer and other degenerative diseases.

      So now you have a polyester fabric which is made from toxic monomers (gotten from crude oil, a precious non-renewable resource), and it’s intrinsically flame retarded by have PBDE’s mixed into the polymer at the melt stage. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live with that mixture. Think about it: It’s generally assumed that PBDE’s in plastics (of all kinds) volatilize – but even if they didn’t, each time you sit on your sofa microscopic particles of the fabric are abraded and fall into the dust in your homes, where you can breathe them in.

      And I’m not impressed by the CertiPur mark. CertiPur is a certification mark of the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam, Inc. – so this is a case of what is called by the greenwashing experts “secondary certification” – i.e., self-certification. That means they devise their own standards and then certify their products to that standard. Essentia (a mattress manufacturer) did a blog post on the certification (https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1887&action=edit ) Polyurethane is also made from crude oil, and one of the monomers is toluene diisocyanate (TDI) – a proven carcinogen. Polyurethane foam definitely does volatilize – so you’ll be breathing in a carcinogen while you nap on your sofa. Pleasant thought?

      And why would you need an intrinsically flame retarded fabric on a sofa in your home? Can’t you use a fabric without flame retardants?

  3. Great article. I want to point out, however, that the smolder allowance for the outer fabric is less than 2 inches at only 1.8 inches. Cotton fabrics alone won’t pass without a barrier — cotton isn’t very flammable, but it has a wide enough smolder spread to fail the test. If the outer fabric fails in TB-1172013, the furniture can still pass if a barrier under the fabric can pass — you get 2 inches of smolder spread for this second level test (to test the barrier everyone used the same surface fabric, a cotton velvet cover). This new standard makes it trickier for manufacturers to use organic cotton fabrics unless they put some type of barrier underneath like polyester, so unfortunately the standard tends to favor synthetics over natural fibers. A manufacturer might conceivably be able to use wool as a barrier, I suppose, but I’m not certain how practical that would be for a sofa.

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