What California’s New Flammability Standard Means for Massachusetts

On February 21st, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition attended a presentation at Harvard University by Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Initiative, Arlene Blum, PhD, to discuss the potential impact of California’s new flammability standards on Massachusetts. Our sister organization, Silent Spring Institute, helped to organize this meeting and Research Scientist Robin Dodson presented findings of their flame retardant research.

As you may know, California’s new flammability standard (TB 117-2013) went into effect in January 2014. Since flame retardant chemicals have been detected at high levels in our homes and bodies, and have been linked to health problems including cancer, infertility and birth defects, this change is an environmental health victory!

The new standard changes the way furniture is tested for fire resistance. Rather than requiring that the inner upholstery withstand an open flame for 12 seconds (resulting in the use of high volumes of chemical flame retardants), the new standard involves a smolder test to the surface of the furniture. Most importantly for our health, the new standard was designed to reduce the reliance on chemical flame retardants and included exceptions for all baby products so they will never be treated with chemicals to meet a fire standard.


What does this mean for Massachusetts?


The old California standard had become the de facto national standard: rather than reformulating products state by state, manufacturers often sold CA TB 117 compliant furniture throughout the country. Many other areas of the country have adopted California’s old flammability standard, including the Massachusetts statewide regulatory agency, the Division of Fire Safety.

To complicate matters and add fuel to this regulatory “fire,” the Boston Fire Department requires compliance with a separate California flammability standard: TB 133. Like TB 117 and TB 117-2013, TB 133 is a flammability testing procedure, but one used specifically for the furnishings of public spaces. It is not a component test like the old TB 117 which tested only the inner upholstery. According to TB 133, the entire piece of furniture must withstand ignition from a gas burner inside a testing chamber.

Again, other municipalities (including Massachusetts as a whole) have adopted this standard. However, unlike other municipalities, Boston has been vigilant about enforcing this standard and offers no exceptions for public buildings fitted with sprinkler systems. It has been hypothesized that, as a result, chemical flame retardant use is widespread and prevalent in this area.

Bart Shea, Deputy Chief and Fire Marshall of the Fire Prevention Division of the Boston Fire Department, says, “The state will allow a reduction from TB 133 to TB 117 in buildings protected by quick response sprinklers. That is not an allowance that is recognized by the Boston Fire Department since we feel TB 133 is a more stringent and applicable test for public buildings and assemblies.”

According to Dr. Blum, some commercial furniture manufacturers have estimated that 40%-70% of TB 133 compliant furniture is distributed to Boston. Since compliance with regulation standards can be achieved in different ways, it is possible that the levels of flame retardants used in TB 133 compliant furnishings, and potential exposure, could be much higher (researchers at Silent Spring Institute hope to test this hypothesis in the future).

Now that TB 117-2013 has gone into effect in California, and there is growing support for a movement away from the use of chemical flame retardants, authorities in Massachusetts and in the city of Boston must decide whether to revise their own fire safety practices and how. As this process unfolds, MBCC representatives will continue to attend meetings and remain up-to-date on our progress. When necessary, we will make our voices heard in favor of the movement away from chemical flame retardant use.

iStock_000006712482XSmall-200Massachusetts was a leader in environmental health policy with the passage of the Toxics Use Reduction Act in the 1980s. We would like to see this legacy continue with respect to everyday exposures to toxins linked with breast cancer and other diseases.

Join forces with firefighters on Thursday, March 27th to Give Toxics the Boot! Learn more from The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow.


Key Terms & Groups

Board of Fire Department: fire safety regulatory body for the state of Massachusetts.

Boston Fire Department: fire safety regulatory body for the city of Boston.

TB 117: Old California flammability standard which required that the inner upholstery of furniture withstand an open flame for 12 seconds. To meet the standard, manufacturers added a high volume of chemical flame retardants to the upholstery.

TB 117-2013: California’s new flammability standard as of January 2014. This standard is a smolder test to the outside of the furniture. It reduces the reliance on chemical flame retardant chemicals to meet the standard because manufacturers can use barriers of naturally flame resistant materials to protect the inner upholstery from igniting during the smolder test. Exceptions also exist for baby products so they are never treated with chemical flame retardants to meet the standard.

TB 133: A California flammability standard for furnishings used in public spaces. This standard requires that the entire piece of furniture withstand ignition from a gas burner inside a test chamber.

Public Health Advocates Find Flame Retardant Fight Follows Familiar Formula

Excerpt from Huff Post Green February 10, 2014:

When chemical companies hired Grant Gillham in 2007 to manage a campaign in defense of flame retardants in couches and other consumer goods, Gillham recalled being “assured that the scientific information they had supporting the safety and effectiveness of their products was valid.” The companies’ claim turned out to be a “big lie,” Gillham, a corporate affairs consultant who has also worked for the tobacco industry, told The Huffington Post.

Flame retardant makers, according to Gillham and other advocates and experts, are following a playbook first drafted by lead paint manufacturers in the early 20th century, revised and expanded by Big Tobacco in subsequent decades, and chock full of legal and public relations tactics designed to preserve profitability, with little regard for public health. All three industries are currently embroiled in ongoing legal battles tied to health concerns. Sources told HuffPost that they recognize many of the classic moves, from deception to denial to delays.

“It’s déjà vu all over again, and again,” said Steven Gilbert, director of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders and affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

Chemtura, a leading manufacturer of flame retardants, filed a lawsuit in mid-January seeking to overturn California’s newly enacted fire safety regulations. The revision of Technical Bulletin 117 dissolves a decades-old state requirement — and de facto U.S. standard — that flame retardants be included in upholstered furniture. The change was spurred by mounting evidence of health problems associated with exposure to the chemicals, as well as an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that found the additives may offer no meaningful fire protection.

The company, however, continues to stand by its product.

“California’s revised, weakened fire safety standard could tragically lead to more fires and more injuries, deaths and property damage nationwide,” John Gustavsen, a spokesperson for Chemtura, told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “Flame retardants are extensively tested with regulatory oversight and are safe and effective for their intended use.”

“Like climate change,” Gilbert countered, “the data against flame retardants is overwhelming.”

It took several decades of accumulated data before the harms from lead and tobacco became widely recognized. Both industries are now attempting to fend off court-ordered penalties for past behavior, including hiding known health risks.


European Study Finds Toxins in Consumer Products

A study conducted by the British environmental group, ClientEarth, tested various consumer products for five endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), or hormone-altering chemicals that have been linked with cancer, reproductive problems, and other negative health consequences. Our sister organization, Silent Spring Institute, did a similar product-testing study in 2012 looking for many of the same chemicals (and finding them) in consumer products from personal care products to shower curtains to cat litter.

Both studies tested for the following EDCs:

Bisphenol A (BPA) – found in plastics and recently banned from baby bottles and sippy cups in the state of Massachusetts.

Phthalates – used in plastics and as a fragrance compound in personal care products

Flame retardants – found in the foam of upholstered furniture, electronics and infant pajamas

Triclosan – an antibacterial used in personal care products like toothpaste, soap, and cleaning products.

Octyl Methoxycinnamate (OMC) – used in sunscreens and lip balms


Media coverage of the EU study:

Calls to Ban Dangerous Chemicals The Independent


Media coverage of Silent Spring Institute study:

Are Hidden Dangers Lurking in Your Cleaning Products? WPBF 25

Bisphenol A and Other Endocrine Disruptors Found in Common Household Products The Huffington Post

Study Highlights Hidden Dangers in Everyday Products Forbes


New Report Finds Toxic Flame Retardants in Children’s Nap Mats

Report Image

A report commissioned by the Center for Environment and Health and co-released by the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow finds chemical flame retardants in children’s nap mats. Our sister organization, Silent Spring Institute, has also conducted research on flame retardants. They found these chemicals in the house dust of most homes sampled, often at levels above federal guidelines.

Flame retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, problems with reproductive development and more.

Click here to read the full report

Click here for information about Silent Spring Institute’s research on flame retardants

Many Toxic Flame Retardants Found in Household Dust

Flame retardants sound like a good idea to prevent our couches and computers and carpets from combusting. Yet these chemicals also accumulate and linger in our homes, sometimes winding up in household dust at levels of health concern. That was one of the central findings of a recent Silent Spring Institute study, the first to test for a wide range of flame retardants in homes.

Consumer products such as furniture, textiles, and electronics often contain chemical flame retardants.  These chemicals can come out of the products into house dust and the environment where people are exposed to them.  House dust is a major source of exposure, particularly for children.  Flame retardants have been detected in human blood, urine, breast milk, indoor and outdoor air, house dust, food, and wildlife around the world.

Institute researchers tested for 49 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, the main route of exposure for people and especially for children. Forty-four chemicals were detected. Most homes had at least one chemical above a federal health guideline. The flame retardants found in house dust include carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and chemicals with unknown safety profiles.

“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day,” said Robin Dodson, PhD, a coauthor of the study and a scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch, and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure.”

Silent Spring Institute researchers first began studying flame retardants in Cape Cod homes, where they discovered levels of PBDE flame retardants were much higher than in Europe. Then in 2006, Silent Spring researchers found that Californians had even higher levels of PBDEs in their homes and bodies than the rest of the nation, likely the result of a unique statewide furniture flammability standard. That same year, California banned two commercial PBDE flame retardant mixtures, PentaBDE and OctaBDE. These chemicals were phased out nationwide.

When the researchers resampled the homes as part of the more recent study, after the PentaBDE and OctaBDE ban, they found increased levels of a new replacement for PentaBDE, Firemaster® 550. PentaBDE levels fell significantly in homes that added new furniture, electronics, and flooring, indicating exposure shifts when products were replaced after the PentaBDE phase-out.

In contrast, people who added new furniture between sampling rounds had an increase in a listed carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 (TDCIPP, or chlorinated “Tris”), suggesting its use as a PentaBDE replacement. TDBPP (brominated “Tris”) was detected in 75 percent of the homes. This chemical was banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977 because of its potential to cause cancer but is still allowed in other products; this is the first report on TDBPP in household dust. The results suggest that after the phase-out of PentaBDE and OctaBDE, manufacturers continued to use hazardous chemicals as flame retardants and to replace chemicals of concern with chemicals with uncharacterized toxicity.

“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be,” said Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of Silent Spring Institute and a study coauthor. “It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market.”

California’s strict flammability standard for polyurethane foam in furniture affects exposures nationwide, because manufacturers design products sold through the U.S. to meet the rule. Yet according to fire safety expert Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, the California flammability standard “provides no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses – furniture ignited by small flames. In view of the toxicity of substances put into furniture foam to meet the California standard, the rule does more harm than good.”

Silent Spring Institute’s study adds groundbreaking new evidence to support California Governor Jerry Brown’s promise to quickly to revise the state’s furniture flammability rule, which affects the health of people around the country.

The study appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology. For more information about the study, visit www.silentspring.org/flame-retardant-follow-up.


Try This at Home: Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure

  • Go natural. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool, cotton, polyester, and hemp.
  • Repair ripped furniture. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling, so mend any rips your couch or chair upholstery may have.
  • Keep down dust. Vacuum regularly with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Wipe surfaces with a wet cloth or mop.
  • Wash hands frequently. Hand washing does more than prevent the spread of germs; it also reduces the amount of flame retardants entering our bodies. Remember to use regular soap and water instead of antibacterial soaps, which may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals.
  • Buy snug pajamas for children. Sleepwear for children nine months and older is subject to flammability tests. Look for snug-fitting cotton sleepwear that is labeled as not flame resistant.
  • Get involved. You can help change California’s furniture flammability standard. For more information, visit Green Science Policy Institute. Learn more about keeping your home healthy at www.silentspring.org/take-action.