Preserving the Environment

California’s New Law on Flame Retardants Could Change the Furniture Industry for the Better

October 7, 2014
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California’s New Law on Flame Retardants Could Change the Furniture Industry for the Better
California will soon require manufacturers to label products containing flame-retardant chemicals. Xavi Gomez/Cover/Getty Images
This one change could cause an industry-wide shift.

While California’s official plastic bag ban might have gotten the most media attention lately, a different bill from the Golden State could have a much bigger environmental and health impact on the whole country.

The Guardian reports that starting Jan. 1, the state will require furniture manufacturers to label consumer products containing flame-retardant chemicals — a change that could alter the entire furniture industry and literally change how we sit (for the better).

In case you didn’t know, the upholstered furniture in our homes, schools, businesses and hospitals are potentially toxic and dangerous. Why? Due to a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided rule called TB-117 which California enacted in the 1970s (that unfortunately trickled down to furniture manufacturers nationwide), our beloved couches are very likely stuffed with flame-retardant filling.

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What’s not good about that? Well, the National Resources Defense Council (NDRC) calls it a “classic example of a stupid use of a chemical: they are ineffective in preventing furniture fires and are linked to serious health effects.” This includes lower birth weight, reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), hyperactivity, poorer coordination, reduced fertility, birth defects, hormonal changes and cancer, the Green Health Policy Institute warns.

As the video below illustrates, these chemicals seep out through couch coverings, mix with the air and get into our bodies and the environment. Young children are particularly vulnerable to exposure because they crawl and tend to put things from the floor into their mouth. Additionally, not only are these couches still incredibly flammable, the chemicals in them can make fires even more toxic by forming deadly gases and soot.

And don’t think you’re safe if you don’t live in California. Most couches purchased outside of the state also contain high levels of many different kinds of retardants, meaning most Americans are exposed. According to the NDRC, “Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world and California children contain some of the highest levels ever measured.” (Check this link here to learn how to check if your furniture has flame-retardant materials)

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The Guardian reports that while environmentalists and health advocates have been trying to fight TB-117 since it came out, the chemical industry has successfully pushed back their efforts through lobbying tactics for several decades. It wasn’t until 2012 when the Chicago Tribune ran exposés on flame retardant furniture foams that any serious legal efforts were made. (Last year, California lawmakers amended the outdated law, requiring that covers were flame resistant, rather than its filling.)

That’s why the new measure, Senate Bill 1019 (signed on Sept. 30 by Gov. Jerry Brown), is a big step forward to safer furniture, better health and cleaner air. While furniture makers can still technically create products with chemically laden material, they are now forced to indicate so on a label if they want to sell it in California. And since California has such a large share of the market, it’s likely that manufacturers will adapt this new rule for other states, too. Meaning that this law has the potential to affect citizens nationwide, not just Californians.

Hopefully, we’ll see toxic furniture phased out for good.

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