A new couch could start to seem like a pretty good investment, provided that California moves forward with a proposed new fire safety rule for household furniture.

For years, firefighters, scientists, businesses, consumers, and public health advocates have gone toe-to-toe with big chemical companies over California’s outdated, scientifically discredited furniture flammability standard. Until recently, Big Chem had the upper hand: the current standard is good for their business (though harmful to consumers and firefighters). But the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown may have turned the tide. Earlier this month, California’s Bureau of Home Furnishings proposed a revised, non-toxic alternative standard based on sound fire science.

The old standard, Technical Bulletin 117, requires all foam furniture sold in the state to withstand 12 seconds exposed to an open flame without catching fire. And because of California’s behemoth market share, the 12-second rule has effectively governed North America’s furniture industry for decades. Most furniture manufacturers satisfy the test by blending flame retardant chemicals into furniture foam—retardants that are associated with a slew of adverse health effects, including cancer, hormone disruption, and neurological dysfunction. Perversely, though, 35 years of fire safety science demonstrates that blending flame retardants into foam simply doesn’t work: the rule does nothing to stop household fires. In fact, the rule may actually create deadlier fires by making a fire’s smoke more poisonous.

The revised rule—TB 117-2013—is, as Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sarah Janssen notes, “a win-win for millions of Californians and people across the country….The new regulation is also a win for businesses. It makes doing business less burdensome and removes the need for duplicative testing.” Whereas the old rule is 0 percent effective, researchers project that the revised rule, based on a long-languishing Consumer Product Safety Commission standard, would be 60 percent effective at reducing deaths, injuries, and damages from furniture fires. And it does not prompt furniture manufacturers to soak your sofa in toxic chemicals.

While we’re excited to report the Bureau has proposed a non-toxic, common sense standard, we’ve also gotten a first-hand look at how the chemical industry goes about the business of protecting its profits. Flame retardant manufacturers have gone to extraordinary lengths: from creating phony watchdog groups to producing deceptive and emotionally manipulative testimony to lining the pockets of lawmakers, the chemical industry expertly manipulates the political process to defend its bottom line.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Bert Gregory for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • Before we can ring the death knell on the old rule, send a message to California’s Bureau of Home Furnishings (and to Big Chem) by supporting the proposed alternative. If the revised rule is finalized on schedule, it will go into effect in July of 2014, and we could all be sitting pretty by the end of next year.

    Valerie Pacino is an unapologetic couch potato, who first became interested in California’s furniture flammability standard as a Sightline intern and a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington.


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