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Bucking a Toxic Trend

One manufacturer wants to stop using a flame retardant found at rising levels in breast milk. He's been stymied, but is not giving up.

October 22, 2003|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

HICKORY, N.C. — Whenever Bobby Bush hears that a chemical used by his foam-making factories is building up in babies and breast milk, polar bears and whales, it makes him cringe.

Bush has long known that being branded an environmental villain can be bad for business. In this case, he fears it might be bad for his soul too. While he is often skeptical of the claims of environmentalists, he has been deeply troubled to learn that a flame retardant used in foam might be disrupting development of babies' brains.

Last year, Bush set out to make Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. the first polyurethane foam company in the United States to eliminate brominated flame retardants.

In the world of manufacturing, environmental revolutions are often born at a single assembly line where a freethinker like Bush takes a risk and tries something new. As the largest manufacturer of foam used in furniture, Bush is in a unique position to affect the future of his industry.

But doing the right thing and making a buck aren't always compatible.

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Hickory Springs produces enough foam every day to fashion 40,000 sofa seats, it turns out that protecting the planet isn't easy.

For half a century, polyurethane foam has been the backbone of upholstered furniture, replacing old-fashioned latex that crumbles and tears. Resilient but soft, foam gives a sofa its springy comfort, a recliner its body-molded support.

Its only drawback is how quickly it burns. A smoldering cigarette or a match can ignite foam cushions like a torch.

Since the mid-1980s, foam companies have relied on a compound, called penta, to slow the spread of flames in furniture cushions enough to meet California's flammability standards, the nation's most stringent. Most furniture sold elsewhere does not need fire-retardant foam, although some national manufacturers put it in all their products.

Penta, a type of polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PBDE, has been cheap, effective and versatile for the foam industry. About 20 million pounds are used yearly, almost entirely in the United States.

But a few years ago, disturbing reports about the flame retardant began emerging in Europe. Swedish scientists found it building up in the breast milk of women at a rapid pace. Tests on animals show it disrupts thyroid hormones, which guide brain development, and sex hormones that control reproduction. At most risk are babies, who are exposed in the womb and through breastfeeding. The discovery caught the eye of executives at IKEA, the Swedish furniture giant. IKEA has long demanded that its suppliers live up to an altruistic "Code of Conduct," modeled after a guiding philosophy of its homeland that emphasizes social and environmental responsibility.

With no fanfare, before Americans were even aware of the threat, IKEA in 2001 issued a directive to its suppliers: No brominated flame retardants in its products. Not just in Sweden, but worldwide.

In the business world, it is called "greening the supply chain": A retailer demands environmentally sound products, and the order trickles down to the manufacturer of each and every part. In Europe, such caution is quite common. Industries there voluntarily began phasing out penta in the 1990s.

Bobby Bush didn't need to overhaul his factories to satisfy the Europeans' demand for penta-free foam. IKEA suppliers buy only a small portion of his total production.

But Bush is an unconventional corporate executive.

Vice president of Hickory Springs, and head of its foam division, Bush is a third-generation foamer, a take-charge guy who doesn't care what his peers in the industry think of him. And he isn't about to let his 60-year-old family-run business become embroiled in a nasty controversy over some chemical just because it's been used by foam factories for years. "Sticking your head in the sand is not an acceptable response, in my book," he said.

Bush was born into the foam business in North Carolina's furniture belt, where one-third of the nation's household furnishings are manufactured. Attracted by lush hardwood forests, settlers carved a world-renowned furniture industry out of the backwoods of Catawba County in the 1880s.

Hickory Springs started out in 1944 on the periphery of furniture manufacturing, making only bedsprings. Then, when polyurethane became the hottest thing in the industry in the 1950s, the company ventured into the foam business. Bush was 5 years old when Hickory Springs began pouring its first foam, and started working summers at the family-owned company when he was 15. His dad headed up sales before retiring this year.

Today, Hickory Springs, with 4,000 employees in 17 states, makes everything that goes into a piece of furniture except the wood and fabric.

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