Editor’s note: This post is a compilation of a series of posts on toxic couches, taken from Sightline’s latest report on Making Sustainability Legal. This week, California’s Governor announced an end to the 12-second rule—a move which should pave the way to homes that are better protected from both fires and hazardous toxics. Sightline will be keeping a close eye as the state considers alternative flammability standards.

The test is simple: 12 seconds exposed to a small flame like a cigarette lighter. If the furniture foam doesn’t burn, it passes the test and can be sold. If it burns, it fails and cannot. That’s been California’s trial by fire for furnishings—its “flammability standard”—since 1975.

Unfortunately, this obscure rule turns out to cause an inordinate amount of toxic harm. Worse, it does this harm without providing any benefits. The rule may have made sense in 1975, when fire-safety science was young, but it’s long past its sell-by date. Simply deleting it from the law books in Sacramento would send benefits up the coast to the Northwest and beyond. Replacing the rule with a new flammability standard developed by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission and called a “smolder test” would do even more good.

The 12-second rule applies to the foam in couch cushions—not the fabric, just the foam. It also governs the foam in other furnishings such as chairs. And it covers foam-padded child-rearing equipment such as crib mattresses, nursing pillows, and strollers.

Because California is the biggest US market, manufacturers tend to treat the 12-second rule as a North American standard. They don’t want different foam formulas for different states and provinces, so most of them make everything to pass the 12-second rule. Consequently, wherever you sit in Cascadia, you’re probably on foam manufactured to pass the 12-second rule.

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  • Foam that passes the test is usually about 5 percent flame retardants. Chemicals made with either bromine or chlorine, flame retardants are designed to delay the combustion of polyurethane so you can escape from a fire. In the seventies, when the 12-second rule was born, a lot of people were dying in fires started by cigarettes. In the intervening years, per-capita cigarette consumption has fallen by more than 40 percent. What’s more, residential smoke detectors, sprinkler systems in big buildings, and, most recently, fire-safe cigarettes (which burn themselves out quickly if not tended) are required across the Northwest and beyond. Consequently, fire safety has improved remarkably; the US fire death rate fell by two-thirds from 1979 to 2007, according to the Fire Administration of the US Department of Homeland Security. Canadian fire safety has improved even more rapidly.

    The 12-second rule, however, has not changed, despite the accumulation of science on a bewildering array of dangers posed by chlorine- and bromine-based flame retardants. These substances crumble and filter out of furnishings, gradually spreading through your living quarters as house dust. There, they become a long-lasting hazard. They harm children especially. Children roll on the floor and put their hands in their mouths more than adults. California children carry 2 to 10 times more toxic flame retardants (p. 270) in their bodies than do US adults. Their bodies hold 10 to 100 times more than do children in Europe or Mexico.

    Flame retardants also endanger pets. Dogs and cats live closer to the floor and its dust, and cats lick it off themselves. US cats carry flame retardants at 20 to 100 times the concentrations of adult Americans, according to this study by federal health scientists.

    Later, from our buildings, flame-retardant dust travels outward, touching house cleaners and employees at sewage treatment plants and dumps. The particles wash into water and float on the breeze. They reach people everywhere. Flame retardants are so commonplace in North America that they are among the main compounds scientists find when they scan our bodies for synthetic and toxic chemicals. Ultimately, they reach a broad swath of living creatures on Earth, from Columbia Basin ospreys to peregrine falcons to migrating salmon to harbor seals.

    The list of flame retardant chemicals is long, and the list of health effects is longer, documented in hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific articles. (Many are summarized in this comprehensive review.) In short form, though, these compounds spell trouble. To varying degrees, they can make you, your pets, and other living things infertile, impotent, stunted, fat, diabetic, stupid, malformed, sickly, mutated, cancerous, or dead. The causal relationships are complicated, of course, and the nuances and uncertainties would matter a tremendous amount if flame retardants in furniture foam had compensating virtues. We might forgive them their sins, for example, if they kept us from perishing in house fires. In that case, we would need to think hard about tradeoffs. How much toxicity should we accept to avoid death by smoke inhalation?

    But the fact is that the 12-second rule is perfectly useless. It fails as a predictor of actual, real-world fire safety. It is scientifically discredited. If fire-safe furniture is what we want, the 12-second rule is simply irrelevant. Actually, it’s worse than irrelevant. Real-world tests of fire safety suggest that upholstering our living spaces with flame retardants does nothing to slow fires but does make fires more lethal to us. It makes a fire’s smoke more poisonous. It also endangers the firefighters who we expect to rescue us.

    One of North America’s leading researchers on fire safety is Vytenis Babrauskas, PhD, of Fire Science and Technology, Inc., in Issaquah, Washington. He and three coauthors recently reviewed the scientific literature on the 12-second rule’s fire safety benefits. Do foams that pass the 12-second test—foams with 5 percent chlorine- or bromine-based flame retardants—reduce the severity of fire or slow it? The answer, they write after looking at every relevant paper published, is “clearly No.” Do foams that pass the 12-second test succeed in resisting ignition, in real-world circumstances? Again, they answer “No.”

    Part of the reason is that the 12-second test applies a small flame, like a cigarette lighter, directly to foam, but in real life, flame catches on furniture fabric first and spreads quickly. In these circumstances, making the foam with 5-percent flame retardants doesn’t help.

    In tests of real-world circumstances, furniture with 5 percent flame retardants burns up just as surely as furniture without retardants. The retardants do not slow down fires, nor keep them from burning as hot, nor prevent ignition, nor do anything else to improve fire safety. In fact, what they do (p. 284) is fill the smoke of furniture fires—the thing that is most likely to kill fire victims—with more soot (because the combustion is less complete) and more toxic substances (such as carbon monoxide, the flame retardants themselves, and the hyper-toxic dioxin-like compounds they can form when burning). Babrauskas and his coauthors underline their conclusion emphatically:

    It is important to emphasize that the above findings have not been disputed. There are no published research studies where the answer to either of the two questions [about reducing fire severity or preventing ignition] is ‘Yes.’ Thus, the evaluation of the fire safety benefits of [12-second-rule] foams is simple—there are no benefits.

    Repeat: There are no benefits. If California were to abandon the 12-second rule, in other words, fire safety would not suffer. It would improve. What’s more, furniture makers would save money, consumers would save money, and thousands of pounds of mutagens, carcinogens, and endocrine disrupters would stop moving into North American homes and offices and, later, into global food webs: into kittens and kestrels and harbor seals and human breast milk and young bottle-nosed dolphins. (Yes, all of these hold flame retardants.)

    So what’s the hold up? If the 12-second rule doesn’t help, why hasn’t California changed it?

    The answer: Profits.

    Four chemical companies dominate the flame retardant market for furniture foam sold in North America. Their profits depend on California keeping the 12-second rule, and their profits are colossal. Albemarle, Israel Chemicals, Chemtura, and Tosoh saw record earnings in 2011. Albemarle grew revenue by 21 percent over 2010 to $2.9 billion. Through the third quarter last year, Israel Chemicals delivered $1.1 billion net profit to shareholders. In 2011, Chemtura boasted it continued “the trend of strong year-over-year improvement.” Tosoh announced its consolidated net sales from the 2011 fiscal year were up 8.9 percent to $8.2 billion. Those earnings are not just from flame retardants, of course. The companies don’t report profits by product line. Still, Ceresana Research published a market research study in July 2011 on projected demand for flame retardants. Things look rosy for the $4.6 billion industry; global revenues are expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2018. Between the companies, they are probably making hundreds of millions of dollars a year from selling toxic flame retardants. Voiding the 12-second rule would decimate those windfalls.

    An impressive coalition of firefighters, nurses, public health officials, environmentalists, and toxicologists have been making the case for reform in Sacramento. In response, the companies have been spending heavily on campaign contributions, lobbying, PR programs, and a fake grassroots front group. According to an investigative report by Environmental Health News, the chemical industry spent nearly $5 million a year over the past five years in California defending flame retardants and the 12-second rule. That’s a lot of money for one industry and one state. On the other hand, it’s a pittance, considering the payback: by defending an obscure and ineffective fire-safety regulation, the industry extends its North American stronghold in a market worth billions of dollars of sales each year. That’s one of the best returns-on-investment imaginable.

    Unfortunately, Big Chem has repeatedly defeated attempts in the California legislature to curtail toxic flame retardants in furniture. A bill introduced in 2007 banned a particularly dangerous flame retardant, but it failed. In 2008, a bill outlawed a host of dangerous flame retardants. It failed. In 2009, a bill sought exemption for children’s products. It failed. A bill in 2010 placed flame retardants under regulatory control of California’s Green Chemistry Initiative. It failed. Last year, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a mild bill. A key state senate committee voted eight-to-one against rewriting the 12-second rule.

    The latest bill AB 2197—presented in 2012 by Rep. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles)—would have replaced the 12-second rule with a modernized standard based on smolder ignition that reflects real-world conditions. In the test, a lit cigarette is placed on a model piece of furniture called a “mock-up” for 45 minutes. If the smoldering cigarette turns into flames at any point, the mock-up fails the test. After 45 minutes, the fabric cannot continue to smolder and the foam underneath cannot have lost more than 10 percent of its mass.

    The bill, devised by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, was backed by a coalition of firefighters, scientists, businesses, consumers, and public health advocates, but was ultimately defeated. Whereas the 12-second rule is 0 percent effective, the modernized standard would likely be 60 percent effective at reducing deaths, injuries, and damages from furniture fires. And it does not have the side effect of promoting use of toxic chemicals.

    Furniture manufacturers can use either of two strategies to comply with the CPSC’s smolder ignition standard. They can use smolder-resistant cover materials such as wool, which is naturally fire-resistant, or they can use natural barriers between the cover fabric and the interior foam.

    Still, the bill ultimately failed.

    This week, however, signaled an end to the reign of the 12-second rule. California’s Governor Jerry Brown announced an overhaul of the state’s flammability safety standards—opening the door to safety rules, like the smolder ignition standard, that are based in sound science.

    As the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sarah Janssen points out, “The entire world is watching California to see if we will act to prevent continuing global contamination from chemicals used to meet [the 12-second rule].”


    This article was combined from posts by Alan Durning and Valerie Pacino, a Sightline research intern and Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. Their original, unabridged research can be found here, here, here, here and here.