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Are Flame Retardant Issues Solved?

Furniture World News Desk on 4/17/2020

Flammability and chemical exposure may be among the last of consumer concerns when purchasing furniture, as considerations like style, price, durability, delivery times and customer service are often more top of mind. However, everyone wants a healthy and safe environment for their family.


According to data from U.S. Fire Departments between 2010 and 2014, upholstered furniture was the first item ignited in 5,630 home fires per year, causing an average of 440 civilian deaths. Recent data from the U.S. Fire Administration also shows that from 2009 – 2018, there was a 4% increase in residential fires and a 13% increase in deaths.


Many consumers are likely unaware that flame retardant chemicals (FRs) have been used for decades in the production of upholstered furniture and other products to achieve fire protection. Studies have shown, however, that there are human health risks associated with exposure to flame retardants. With the rising concern over chemical safety and the lack of a national standard defining flammability testing and acceptance criteria, many manufacturers are now removing FRs from their furniture materials altogether.


The safest option for consumers is to have both fire-safe and chemical-safe furniture without sacrificing one safety feature over the other. But is this possible? The following scientific research findings will help retailers when it comes to purchasing upholstered furniture from suppliers that will keep consumers safe and happy. 


Fire Protection Strategies to Date

Various fire protection strategies have been in the market for years, including:

  • Selecting cover fabrics and filling materials resistant to ignition from smoking materials;
  • Treating polyurethane foam with fire retardants to reduce fire growth;
  • Employing fire barriers between the polyurethane foam and cover fabric to reduce fire growth from foam; and
  • Using environmentally preferred or reactive FRs that are integrated in the polyurethane foam and cannot easily migrate into the home environment.


The state of California has a standard, CA TB 117-2013, a cigarette smoldering test for upholstery furniture. Some furniture can pass this test without the use of FRs, but there is little correlation of this test to open flame ignition of fully assembled furniture as you might expect in a home fire.


Health Risks of Flame Retardants

Recent knowledge of the health risks from certain FRs has sparked a debate about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Most flame retardants are persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning they reside in our environment and biological systems for a long period of time, and they don’t easily change to a nontoxic form. Various human health risks from flame retardants include adverse neurodevelopmental, respiratory, endocrine and reproductive effects.


Chemical Exposure and Flammability Risks of Upholstered Furniture

Chemical Insights, an Institute of Underwriters Laboratories, and Emory University conducted a three-year study to develop scientific data on chemical exposure and flammability risks of upholstered furniture, both new and aged. Partnering with a furniture manufacturer, the team constructed four types of upholstered chairs using different flame suppression technologies: Non-flame retardant foam, standard organophosphate flame retardant foam, reactive flame retardant foam and fire barrier material only / non-flame retardant foam.


Each chair was tested for both chemical exposure to FRs and other chemicals from typical consumer use and flammability performances.


Key findings from the study included:

  • Skin, or dermal, contact is a primary way for adults to be exposed to FRs in upholstered furniture;
  • Children are at the greatest risk of FR exposure by ingestion due to frequent hand-to-mouth contact with settled dust containing the furniture FRs;
  • Upholstered furniture with a barrier material between the cover fabric and polyurethane foam (and no FRs) demonstrated significantly lower fire hazards;
  • Furniture foam with reactive alternative FRs indicated no exposure to known hazardous chemicals; and
  • Furniture with carefully selected materials can be very low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).


Purchasing Upholstered Furniture with Consumers in Mind

The scientific research has shown that there is an issue with upholstered furniture and its propensity for fire as well as chemical exposure. Below are several ways retailers can provide fire-safe and chemical-safe furniture to consumers:

  • Specify furniture with proven fire protection and without FRs if feasible such as barrier material construction;
  • Choose furniture that is low in VOCs (e.g., standards by GREENGUARD, CA 1350, etc.); and
  • Once purchased, frequently clean furniture and surrounding surfaces using a vacuum with high efficiency particulate filters (HEPA) or special electrostatic cloths.


Especially in today’s new normal of staying at home much more than everyone is used to, it is important that furniture retailers keep consumer health and safety top of mind. And, as consumers continue to educate themselves on the potential hazards of FRs and similar chemicals, retailers will need to ensure low VOCs to keep consumers satisfied.


Chemical Insights is forming a task group to create a guidance document with the goal of achieving fire-safe and chemical-safe furniture. This document will be provided to suppliers, furniture manufacturers, and consumers at the point-of-sale, so they know what questions to ask. If you’re interested in joining this task group, contact ChemicalInsights@ul.org.