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How is California Lowering Furniture Fire Safety?

Jul 2014

The state of California has eliminated the requirements, in effect since 1975, that foams within upholstered furniture must pass an open flame test. It did this by replacing the traditional California TB 117 standard (California Technical Bulletin 117, Requirements, Test Procedures and Apparatus for Testing the Flame Retardance of Resilient Filling Materials Used in Upholstered Furniture, California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation) with a new standard (California Technical Bulletin 117, Requirements, Test Procedure and Apparatus for Testing the Smolder Resistance of Materials Used in Upholstered Furniture, California Bureau of Electronic & Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation) that does not require open flame testing but only requires testing for smoldering (cigarette) ignition, especially for cover fabrics. Two false reasons were given to do this: (1) flame retardants (especially those that are halogenated) are toxic and (2) fire safety of upholstered furniture can be assured by testing for smoldering ignition of cover fabrics. Both will be addressed here.

Flame retardants as a group are no more toxic than any other category of chemicals, whether halogenated or not. In fact many ongoing misconceptions ignore valuable scientific work, including: (1) a National Academy of Sciences study published in 2000 (US National Research Council, Committee on Toxicology, Subcommittee on Flame-Retardant Chemicals) that showed that most flame retardants have no health or environmental effects, (2) the fact that the toxicity of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (especially benzo(a) pyrene or BAP) produced in all fires as a result of the soot and smoke released is orders of magnitude higher than that of any combustion product from flame retarded materials and (3) that flame retarded products generate much fewer environmental emissions than the corresponding non flame retarded products as shown by multiple life cycle analyses.

The first patent for flame retardants was issued to Obadiah Wyld in England almost 400 years ago (in 1735) and hundreds of flame retardants have been in commercial use since. Only three flame retardants have been shown to be associated with health issues and were withdrawn from the market: tris (2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate used for a short time in the 1970s for pajamas, pentabromobiphenyl oxide and octabromobiphenyl oxide which were withdrawn in the early 20th century. In December 2009 all manufacturers of a fourth flame retardant (decabromobiphenyl oxide) voluntarily announced a phase-out of production because it was in the same family as the last two, in spite of the lack of proven health effects. Flame retardants are typically made with halogens, including bromine and chlorine, or with many other chemical components, especially phosphorus, nitrogen, aluminum, boron and antimony. Some flame retardants are even commonly used in household applications unrelated to fire safety.

The new regulation covers smoldering only; therefore, it does not address the key fire safety issues with upholstered furniture, which cause some 19% of US home fire deaths, according to NFPA statistics. Fires typically become deadly only once they become large flaming fires, and then it is the heat release rate of upholstered furniture, and primarily of the paddings, that plays the key role. The new California regulation will ignore that. Also, the percentage of upholstered furniture open flame fires in the US has remained steady over the last 30 years at 19% in 1980 and 20% in 2009, while the percentage of upholstered furniture fires started with smoking materials has decreased dramatically from 63% in 1980 to 27% in 2009. Therefore, the new regulation focuses only on the type of fires that are already decreasing in occurrence and ignores the serious and growing open flame fire problem. Moreover, NFPA data show that all home fire deaths in unintentional fires occurred when the fire went beyond the original item which can only happen if flaming occurs. Finally, research showed that 64% of upholstered items that were subjected to smoldering ignition sources eventually transitioned into flaming, meaning that the risk is large that serious fires with high heat release will occur if nothing is done to ensure resistance to open flame or to have materials that will generate very low heat release. Regulation that only addresses smoldering is severely deficient in that regard. Furthermore, the new CA TB 117 will reduce fire safety further by leading to expanded use of fabrics which pass smoldering tests easily but cause severe flaming fires, such as polypropylene fabrics.

By eliminating open flame ignition testing of upholstered furniture California ignored the evidence from regulation in the United Kingdom where fire losses and fire fatalities have decreased dramatically after the laws associated with fire safety of upholstered furniture (BS5852) went into effect in 1988, saving multiple lives, property, and money.

I believe the open flame ignition test in the traditional CA TB 117 test is not good enough, since it will not prevent upholstered furniture from reaching flashover, once ignited. However, it offers two benefits which the new regulation affects: it prevents ignition from a match or equivalent and it delays the occurrence of a large fire by a significant amount of time.

Recent studies at Southwest Research Institute for the National Institute of Justice (Janssens, et al., “Reducing Uncertainty of Quantifying the Burning Rate of Upholstered Furniture”, SwRI Project No. 0.1.15998, Award No. 2010-DN-BX-K221, for National Institute of Justice, 2012.) showed the importance of open flame testing and the improved fire safety of using a combination of a flame retarded foam and a flame retarded fabric in upholstered furniture mock-us. The furniture is not ignited by a severe ignition source such as that in CA TB133.  Click below to see the comparative video.

We don’t have adequate fire safety of upholstered furniture now, but the California regulation will make it worse. It is possible to have upholstered furniture fire safety, for example by adopting the UK type of regulation or by adopting a test method that requires a higher level of fire safety in furniture while testing full systems, thus permitting the use of barriers or back-coated fabrics in the furniture. Such a test was assessed successfully by the Alliance for the Polyurethane Industry in 2001 and 2002 but was never implemented. The procedure requires open flame ignition testing but does not require using flame retardants.

In conclusion, California’s elimination of open flame ignition testing for upholstered furniture composites or components will lower fire safety and cause more fire losses.

This is being brought to the attention of the vinyl industry as an example of the potential regulatory effects of the application of bad science.