New Laws Push Furniture Manufacturers to Phase Out Toxic Flame Retardants

Woman sitting on sofa

Have you heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking”? Well, not only is it unhealthy to stay seated and sedentary for long periods, but that chair or sofa you’re sitting on may also contain toxic chemicals. In fact, one study led by a Duke University researcher found that in a sample of 101 couches bought in the U.S. between 1984-2010, 85% contained flame retardant chemicals in the foam. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer and fertility issues, and have actually been found to provide no significant protection against the start or spread of fire.

The good news is that these chemicals are now being phased out by the largest furniture manufacturers in the country, including Herman Miller and Knoll. Increased awareness of the harms these chemicals cause as well as recent changes in the law are driving the removal of fire retardants from new furniture.

How did we end up with toxic, cancer causing chemicals in our furniture?

As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2012 in its series Playing with Fire, flame retardants found their way into American furniture as a result of a deceptive, decades-long campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries:

Among other things, the leading manufacturers of flame retardants created a phony consumer group that stoked the public’s fear of fire to protect and expand the use of their chemicals in furniture, electronics and other products.

How was the tobacco industry involved? Well, smoldering cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. Rather than attempt to make cigarettes more fire-safe, Big Tobacco instead poured millions of dollars into a campaign to redirect the focus to fire retardants in furniture.

The intense lobbying by these industries resulted in the state of California enacting a regulation in 1975 that required furniture manufacturers who sell in the state to meet stringent new fire safety standards, which drove most manufacturers across the country to use fire retardant chemicals to meet the standards.

How did California get to set the standard for furniture in the entire country?

Even though the California government has no direct control over the regulations of other states, California has a major influence on what manufacturers do because it has the largest population of any state and thus is the largest consumer market in the country. When California requires furniture manufacturers who sell to Californians to meet a certain standard, the big manufacturers don’t want to have two processes for its products – one for California and one for everyone else – so they generally make sure all their inventory complies with California law, even that sold in other states.

What are the legal changes driving the removal of fire retardants from furniture?

As of January 2014, California relaxed its furniture fire safety regulation, instead implementing a requirement that the outer fabric on furniture must be naturally resistant to smoldering, as from a cigarette (again, the leading cause of furniture fires).

The second legal change is that as of January 2015, California requires all upholstered furniture sold in the state to contain a label describing whether the furniture contains toxic flame retardant chemicals.

Again, manufacturers do not need to follow these rules for selling in other states, but many are committing to do so anyway, because it is easier to have just one standard for their manufacturing processes. Also, neither of these regulations require furniture makers to remove fire retardants, but they essentially push manufacturers in that direction, in conjunction with consumer pressure.

So when shopping for your next sofa, be sure to check the label, and if it says it contains fire retardant chemicals, just say “thanks but no thanks!”

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