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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Changing Flammability Standards in California: An Important Step towards Improved Health and Safety

Posted on December 13, 2013

By Kristine Jinnett, PhD

Recent changes in Californian flammability standards mark a positive step towards protecting our health and that of our planet from harmful chemicals in consumer products. Regulations introduced decades ago have led to the use of flame retardants in furniture and building foam insulation in California. Studies have shown that while these chemicals do not provide a fire safety benefit in these applications, they are associated with an increasing array of health concerns. These policy changes will maintain fire safety without the need for harmful chemicals.  

A furniture flammability standard known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) was introduced in California in 1975. This standard requires the foam inside furniture to withstand 12 seconds of exposure to a small open flame, and flame retardant chemicals were added to furniture products in order to comply. Unfortunately TB117 did not prove to be effective in improving fire safety, as most furniture fires are caused by smoldering cigarettes, not a small open flame. Furthermore, the standard only tests the foam inside the couch, and does not address the fabric covering where fires actually start. In fact, studies have shown that the presence of certain flame retardants can lead to increased fire hazard due to increased production of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and soot[1] which can impair vision and complicate escape.

As most flame retardants are not chemically bonded to the foam in furniture or insulation they can continuously migrate out of products and into indoor environments. The main route of exposure to these harmful chemicals is believed to be through ingestion and inhalation of contaminated indoor dust.[2] California house dust has up to 200 times the levels of flame retardants found in the dust of European homes,[3] and Californians have some of the highest body burdens of flame retardants. California children are of particular concern, as research has shown that toddlers have three times the levels of flame retardants in their bodies compared to their mothers.[4] 

Flame retardant chemicals are linked to an ever increasing number of health concerns in both animals and humans. These include reproductive and developmental toxicity, hormonal disruption, immunotoxicity, lowered IQ and cancer.[5] Many of these chemicals persist in the environment and can bioaccumulate, meaning that levels increase as they move up food chains.

A recent policy victory in California is the updating of the ineffective flammability standard TB117. The updated standard, TB117-2013, is due to be implemented in January 2014. The new standard is based on a smolder test for fabric and will allow for increased fire safety without the need for hazardous flame retardants. Additionally, TB117-2013 will no longer apply to baby products that contain foam such as infant mattresses. The use of these chemicals in baby products was especially injurious as infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of flame retardant chemicals. However, this standard does not ban the use of hazardous flame retardants in furniture. Therefore the onus is on manufacturers and consumers to ensure that the furniture they produce or purchase does not contain these chemicals.

Another California policy victory in 2013 was the passing of Assembly Bill 127 (AB127). This bill requires the review of the flammability standards for building insulation materials by the State Fire Marshal, in consultation with the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation. Flame retardants are currently being used in building insulation foam where they provide no fire safety benefit, such as below grade and behind thermal barriers.[6] The necessity for flame retardants in building insulation where there is not a fire safety benefit will be reexamined under AB127, while ensuring that overall fire safety is maintained.

While these policy changes are a victory for human and environmental health, the unfortunate truth is that the legacy of the old standards will remain for many decades to come. The average lifetime of a couch is 15-20 years per owner, and couches are often passed on to college students or low-income families where they are used for many more years. Buildings across the U.S. will continue to have insulation containing harmful flame retardants, even if future regulations allow for insulation without these chemicals. Legislators, industry and environmental organizations must continue to work together to ensure that flame retardants are not added to consumer products where they do not provide a fire safety benefit.    

[1] Purser DA. The performance of fire retardants in relation to toxicity, toxic hazard, and risk in fires. In: Grand A, Wilkie C, eds, Fire retardancy of polymeric materials. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc.,2000; 449-99

[2] Lorber M. Exposure of Americans to polybrominated diphenyl ethers. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2008 Jan;18(1):2-19

[3] Zota AR, Rudel RA, Morello-Frosch RA, Brody JG. Elevated house dust and serum concentrations of PBDEs in California: unintended consequences of furniture flammability standards? Environ Sci Technol. 2008 Nov 1;42(21):8158-64

[4] Fisher D, Hooper K, Athanasiadou MAthanassiadis IBergman A. Children show highest levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in a California family of four: a case study. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Oct;114(10):1581-4

[5] Shaw SDBlum AWeber RKannan KRich DLucas DKoshland CPDobraca DHanson SBirnbaum LS. Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks? Rev Environ Health. 2010 Oct-Dec;25(4):261-305

[6] Babrauskas V, Lucas D, Eisenberg D, Singla V, Dedeo M, Blum A. Flame retardants in building insulation: a case for re-evaluating building codes. Building Research and Information 2012; 40 (6): 738-755


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