Do flame retardants save lives?

There’s no simple answer

Does California’s flammability standard save lives? There is no clear answer.

The standard, adopted in 1975 and known as Technical Bulletin 117, requires polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture and children’s products to resist a small open flame for 12 seconds. To meet the standard, furniture manufacturers commonly add flame retardants to the foam, which is notorious for its combustibility.

Yet according to a study presented at the International Association for Fire Safety in June, the standard doesn’t prevent ignition from small flames or reduce the severity of a fire. That’s because the small-flame standard doesn’t reflect what happens when furniture catches fire, said Vytenis Babrauskas, former head of the National Institute of Standards and Toxicology’s combustion toxicology program and lead author of the study, which was federally funded.

The test exposes foam to a small, Bunsen-burner-like flame, Babrauskas explained, but it should have used foam covered with fabric, since that’s what people have in their homes. “In real life you don’t see this naked foam,” he said. “What you see is fabric, and what’s going to ignite first is the fabric.”

Naked foam treated with flame retardants to meet TB117 can resist a small open flame. But when fabric starts to burn, the foam will be exposed to a much larger flame than used in the TB117 test, and there’s no evidence that treated foam can resist that larger flame.

Also, in a 2001 draft proposal for the first national furniture flammability standard, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that TB117-compliant chairs performed no better against cigarettes or small open flames than chairs that met voluntary guidelines issued by the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. To meet those voluntary guidelines, manufacturers use fabrics with inherent flame resistance and build furniture following criteria that pass the council’s flammability tests—none of which require flame retardants.

Death rates from residential fires involving upholstered furniture fell in California during the 1980s. But the CPSC attributed the decline to demographic factors—particularly a rapid drop in smoking prevalence—rather than the state’s flammability standard.

No one factor can explain the state’s reduction in fire deaths, said Tonya Hoover, California’s acting state fire marshal. She attributed the decline to a combination of factors, including fire-safe building construction, smoke alarms, material-flammability standards and reduced smoking.

The CPSC’s proposed federal regulation has not moved beyond a draft form. As a result, because manufacturers make most of their products to comply with TB117, California’s flammability rule serves as a de facto national standard.