Leaders of the nation's furniture industry warned that a pending federal regulation could increase the cost of sofas and chairs, and expose employees and consumers to potentially hazardous chemicals. Manufacturers and retailers alike expressed concern about a plan by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to require the treatment of upholstery fabrics with flame retardant chemicals.
Several speakers at a UFAC meeting at the recent International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, cited the industry's progress in reducing ignition by dropped cigarettes, by far the most common way that upholstered furniture becomes involved in fires. This has been accomplished through the internationally recognized Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC). This voluntary standards program sets performance criteria for upholstered furniture components and fabrics, and distributes multilingual educational material on fire safety. Federal Government statistics demonstrate that since UFAC's implementation in 1978, cigarette ignited upholstered furniture fires have declined by approximately 77%.
Washington regulators are now focused on a much less common fire scenario, ignition of upholstered furniture by small open flame sources such as lighters, matches and candles. Design changes to furniture are less apt to address such incidents, which often involve unsupervised childplay. UFAC Chairman and American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA) President Ed Gerken, Jr. explained that: "The industry has studied the open flame issue closely, and we are not aware of small open flame resistant materials or constructions that preserve the styles, fabrics, comfort and affordability that U.S. consumers demand."
This point strikes a particular chord with the retail community, for whom consumer acceptance is paramount. Florida Retailer Pedro Capo, a 1998 recipient of UFAC's prestigious "Dali" Award, cautioned that "safer constructions do no good if they fail to reach the customer's home." He pointed out that the regulatory approach being considered in Washington would substantially increase the cost of upholstered furniture to the consumer, particularly the lower income consumers at greatest fire risk. As a retailer, "I know that can mean only one thing--families will put off purchases of furniture."
In addition to higher costs, the CPSC regulation could threaten textile and furniture employees -- and consumers -- with increased exposure to complex organic chemicals. AFMA's Gerken noted that some of the flame retardant chemicals being considered are known to be toxic, and their use has been rejected by Germany and other European nations due to concerns about health and environmental effects. Gerken reasoned that "we should not be forced to expose our employees and customers to such chemicals, until the need for a regulation, and the safety of these compounds has been clearly established."
Industry leaders predicted that the proposed government "cure" would be more worrisome to consumers than the fire risks that gave rise to it. "Few Americans wake up in the morning worried about their upholstered furniture harming them," Gerken said. "They understand that fabric and many other materials in the home can burn, and they take sensible precautions such as installing smoke detectors, and keeping matches and lighters out of the hands of children." Mr. Capo echoed this view, saying that "in 30 years of business, we have never had a customer request flame-proof furniture."
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