Viewpoints: State flammability rule change poses a fiery risk to consumers

02/28/2013 12:00 AM

03/27/2013 9:10 AM

A movement is taking place in the Golden State to turn back the clock on a fire safety standard that has provided an important layer of protection to Californians for over 35 years. On Feb. 8, the state released a proposal to revise one of the state's fire safety standards for upholstered furniture, known as Technical Bulletin 117, by removing the standard's "open-flame tests." Without complying with flame tests, furniture that comes into contact with an open-flame, such as lighters, candles and matches, will ignite and burn more vigorously.

Open flame testing is especially important as statistics from the National Fire Protection Association show that flame sources account for a significant number of upholstered furniture fires across the U.S. The new proposal by the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation would only require furniture to be tested for flammability from "smoldering" ignition sources, like cigarettes.

When adopted in 1975, TB 117 was a groundbreaking step for improving fire safety. It has been so effective in testing the flammability of upholstered furniture that it has become the de facto national standard. Indeed, in the first 16 years of implementation, in the midst of dramatic population growth in the state, the number of reported upholstered furniture fire incidents in California dropped by more than two-thirds, from 2,500 to approximately 800. While TB 117 was not solely responsible for these reductions, it did play a role in delaying onset of ignition, slowing fire growth and widening the window of escape time in fires involving furniture.

So why is this standard being revised? Concerns have been raised about potential health and environmental impacts stemming from the fire retardant chemicals used to help furniture meet this standard. Certainly, these concerns should be taken seriously and efforts should be undertaken to assess the health and safety impacts of these chemicals, and they are. Flame retardants are subject to review and approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental agencies worldwide.

As flame retardant manufacturers strive to innovate and invest in better performing and more sustainable flame retardants, improved alternatives are becoming available. Yet protecting Californians from fires and evaluating flame retardants for health concerns are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Unfortunately, this is the approach California has decided to take with its proposed new furniture flammability regulations.

This revised state fire safety standard, if adopted, would be unquestionably less protective of public safety. Given the potential of furniture fires to grow rapidly in size and cause injury, death and property loss, this reality argues for a stronger open-flame standard, not the elimination of the standard altogether.

Environmental protection and fire safety are both worthwhile and achievable consumer goals. Gov. Jerry Brown has an opportunity to ensure that a reasonable balance is maintained between environmental regulations and fire safety by directing the state home furnishings bureau to rethink its proposed approach.

If there are concerns about the flame retardants used in furniture, then the appropriate agency should be directed to conduct an assessment of those chemicals and alternatives developed through emerging technical innovations, to ensure human and environmental health are protected.

But gutting the state's furniture flammability standard by removing the open-flame tests entirely takes California and the rest of the nation in the wrong direction on fire safety. It is essential that California's furniture flammability standard address both the leading causes of residential furniture fires – open flame and smoldering ignition sources – to ensure an adequate level of fire safety protection.

John A. McCormack is a retired fire scientist and worked at the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. He is now an expert consultant for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, which includes manufacturers of flame retardants.

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