Last week, California governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2998 (AB 2998) into law, the latest in a series of California laws mandating flammability standards for residential upholstered furniture. In order to fully grasp the significance of this environmental health regulatory milestone, let’s first review the series of preceding laws pertaining to flame retardant application in furniture foam.
Out with the old – TB 117
California Technical Bulletin 117 (hereafter referred to as TB 117) was established in 1975 to standardize flammability requirements for residential upholstered furniture. Although TB 117 was technically only California state law, furniture companies streamlined their manufacturing processes nationwide to be compliant with TB 117, hence the law become the de facto United States flammability standard for residential upholstered furniture. TB 117 mandated that residential upholstered furniture must comply with certain flammability tests, the most significant test being a 12-second open flame test of interior furniture foam.1 Manufacturers typically satisfied this requirement by using flame retardant treated foam in the upholstery,1 inadvertently also introducing flame retardant chemicals into consumers’ homes.
In 2013, TB 117 was amended in response to an increasing understanding about the health effects associated with flame retardant exposure and the way that household fires typically begin and spread. A large body of scientific research had amassed over the 38 years since TB 117 was passed, indicating widespread exposure and possible health risks from the use of flame retardants in residential furniture foam. Two key findings related to TB 117 are that the potential health effects associated with chronic flame retardant exposure are significant, and the widespread use of flame retardants in residential furniture is ineffective in preventing and reducing the severity of house fires.2
The revisions in TB 117-2013 reflect the understanding that household fires typically begin when exterior fabric catches fire (e.g., from a smoldering cigarette)1 rather than interior furniture foam initiating fire. As such, the rule was changed to replace the 12-second open flame test on interior foam with a smolder test on the exterior fabric of the piece.3
Some have criticized TB 117-2013, saying that while it is an improvement, furniture flammability requirements must further protect the health of consumers and the environment.4 Although TB 117-2013 obviates the need for flame retardant-treated foam, it does not explicitly prohibit the use of flame retardants in residential upholstered furniture.5
In with the new? Governor signs AB 2998
The recently passed AB 2998 goes beyond TB 117-2013 in that it aims to minimize household exposure to flame retardant chemicals from consumer products. It is currently the most stringent law in the United States for regulating residential flame retardant exposure. Citing the State of California’s finding that “flame retardant chemicals are not needed to provide fire safety,”6 Assembly Bill 2998 restricts flame retardant application to consumer products in the following ways:
-Prohibits the sale and distribution of new juvenile products, mattresses, and upholstered furniture containing flame retardant chemicals at levels about 1,000 parts per million6
-Prohibits upholsterers from repairing, recovering, restoring, or renewing upholstered furniture using replacement components that contain specified flame retardant chemicals at levels above 1,000 ppm.6
New Limits on Flame Retardants Have National Impact
Notably, this is the first time that California law has set maximum limits on flame retardant additives for residential furniture. AB 2998 also reinforces the language of TB 117-2013, which completely prohibits flame retardant additives in 18 different categories of juvenile products. Citing the 2017 United States Consumer Product Safety Commission guidance document urging the cessation of organohalogen flame retardant additives in various consumer products,7 AB 2998 is another important step in the regulation of flame retardant additives in residential furniture.
With AB 2998, California has established the leading regulatory policy to minimize flame retardant use in consumer products and thereby human exposure. Given that Californian consumers comprise 11.1% of United States per capita furniture and bedding sales,8 the implications of AB 2998 will certainly be far-reaching. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the rest of the country will follow suit.
- California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. Technical Bulletin 117: Residential Upholstered Furniture Standard Fact Sheet. (https://www.bearhfti.ca.gov/industry/tb_117_faq_sheet.pdf).
- Babrauskas, V., Blum, A., Daley, R., and Birnbaum, L. Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risk. (http://greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Babrauskas-and-Blum-Paper.pdf).
- California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. Technical Bulletin 117-2013. 2013 June. (https://www.bearhfti.ca.gov/about_us/tb117_2013.pdf).
- National Resource Defense Council. Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals Have Gotta Go. 2018 Apr 26. (https://www.nrdc.org/experts/avinash-kar/toxic-flame-retardant-chemicals-have-gotta-go)
- Green Science Policy Institute. The new California TB117-2013 regulation:
What does it mean? 2014 Feb 11. (http://greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/TB117-2013_manufacturers_021114.pdf).
- California General Assembly. AB-2998 Consumer products: flame retardant materials. 29 September 2018. (https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB2998).
- U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Guidance Document on Hazardous Additive, Non-Polymeric Organohalogen Flame Retardants in Certain Consumer Products. Federal Register. 2017 Sept 28. 82(187):45268-45269. (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2017-09-28/pdf/2017-20733.pdf)
- Statista. Furniture and bedding sales in the United States from 2014 to 2020, by state (in million U.S. dollars.) Accessed at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/512341/us-furniture-and-bedding-sales-by-state/.