To prevent fatal fires, regulators have required manufacturers for decades to make chairs, couches, and other furniture that will not easily burst into flames, leading many companies to use flame retardants in their products.
But now, with fatal fires rare, many environmental and public health advocates are seeking less stringent flammability rules to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals to resist or slow the spread of fire. Fire-related deaths in the United States plunged more than 60 percent over the past 35 years, according to the US Fire Administration.
In Massachusetts, the Board of Fire Prevention and Department of Fire Services are revising its fire code to ease flammability standards for upholstered furniture because of the hazards of flame-retardant chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and reduced fertility.
Environmental and public health advocates say easing flammability standards would eliminate the use of flame retardants. Instead of requiring furniture to resist fire when ignited with a lighter or candle, they say, fire codes should adopt a less-rigorous smolder test, which simulates a smoldering cigarette dropped on an upholstered seat to test how quickly the furniture catches on fire.
California this year adopted the smolder standard for upholstered, residential furniture, but left the open-flame standard in place for furniture in public spaces. In Massachusetts, the fire prevention board has proposed changing the standard to the smolder test for furniture in public spaces with sprinklers.
“Fire officials want furniture to meet fire safety standards in public buildings without trading one havoc for another,” said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services.
In Boston, however, fire officials are hesitant to toss the tougher, open-flame standard. (The city will exempt some businesses, offices, and merchants from seating flammability requirements starting April 1.)
“I am 100 percent for removing any kind of exposure to any kind of chemicals,” said Boston Fire Marshal Bart. J. Shea. “But I want people to think before they do anything, because these [regulations] were put in place for a particular reason.”
Shea said a better solution would be pressing furniture manufacturers to develop nontoxic solutions. “They know they have a battle if they go after industry,” he said, “so they go after regulations.”
Furniture makers say they can’t meet the open-flame standard without using chemicals.
“To meet [the open-flame standard] without using fire retardants severely limits the options of materials and design,” said David Panning, director of technical services for the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Ultimately that affects the options and the price points for consumers.”
Regulations that set flammability standards for some furniture grew out of a 1973 federal report, “America Burning,” which found that the United States had the highest rate of fire-related deaths in the industrialized world. The report identified a variety of factors that contributed to this tragic distinction, including the highly flammable materials in modern furnishings.
A 2009 video by Underwriters Laboratories, a product safety testing and certification organization, illustrates this. The video shows two living rooms: one with modern furniture made of plastics, polyurethane foam, and plywood; the other with classic furniture, made of cottons, wools, and solid wood.
After a couch in each room is set on fire, the flame in the classic room stays contained to the right side of the couch. But the modern furniture is ablaze in minutes, flames engulfing the room and thick, black smoke billowing out the door.
The 1973 report, in addition to promoting rules on smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and other measures, led to widespread adoption of flammability standards by state and local regulators. For years, cities and states have used the open-flame test, requiring that upholstered furniture ignited by a candle or lighter be able to keep fires from quickly breaking out and spreading.
To meet these standards, upholstered furniture makers turned to flame retardants, such as chlorinated Tris, a known carcinogen. Chlorinated Tris was phased out of children’s pajamas starting in the late 1970s. But chlorinated Tris is still widely used in the polyurethane foam inside upholstered furniture and baby products, like car seats, changing pads, and carriers.
Flame retardants can be found in furniture, electronics, insulation, drapery, and carpeting that fill classrooms, offices, movie theaters, hospitals, homes, and other buildings. Environmental health researchers say that through wide exposure, these chemicals that can build up in the human body, including breast milk.
In California, where strict flammability standards apply to furniture in residences, as well as public places such as theaters, Newton-based Silent Spring Institute found 40 flame-retarding chemicals in homes. The institute, which studies the effects of chemicals on human health, found double the concentration of a toxic chemicals known as PBDEs in the blood of Californians, compared with residents of other states.
PDBEs, which were voluntarily phased out by manufacturers starting in 2005, affect learning, memory, and motor activity, and disrupt the functioning of the thyroid and reproductive hormones in men and women.
“We know we’re widely exposed to a variety of flame retardants of all different kinds,” said Robin Dodson, research scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “And we know that fire standards can influence exposure.”
In Massachusetts and Boston, flammability standards apply furnishings in public places such as offices, classrooms, hospitals, and theaters. Thomas F. Webster, an environmental health professor at Boston University is studying exposure in the office.
In 2012, Webster’s team, along with scientists from Duke University, found a carcinogenic flame retardant chemical in the urine of their entire study group of 29 adults who live and work in Boston. “We found that there tends to be more flame retardants in offices than in homes,” Webster said.
Lonnie Shekhtman can be reached at Lonnie.firstname.lastname@example.org