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Is your sofa safe?

Editorial

A California agency is set to study furniture flammability rules, which largely serve as the standard nationwide.

June 28, 2012
  • Fires are far more likely to be started by a smoldering cigarette than a candle; by the time it reaches the upholstery, researchers have found, the fire is too far along to be damped by chemical fire retardants.
Fires are far more likely to be started by a smoldering cigarette than a candle;… (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune )

The California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation might just be the most important state agency that no one's ever heard of. It is about to revamp the state's flammability standards for furniture, a mundane-sounding subject that will have significant ramifications not just in California but nationally as well.

After years of legislative inaction — and years of studies linking chemical flame retardants to a wide variety of health problems — Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for an administrative overhaul of a 37-year-old fire safety rule that was developed with limited information about the dangers of many flame retardants, or about their lack of effectiveness. A recent investigative series by the Chicago Tribune reported on a 2009 study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that found the chemicals offer no meaningful protection.

But the makers of these chemicals — supported by the tobacco industry, which prefers the existing flame-retardant standards to new regulations requiring more fire-resistant cigarettes — have mounted a successful all-out campaign over the years. Last year, California legislation that would have allowed furniture makers to use an alternative test for meeting state fire standards was defeated. The campaign against it included misleading testimony and, at times, downright falsehoods, the Tribune reported, including an anecdote about a fatally burned baby who never existed.

The state's rule, one of the strictest in the nation, largely serves as the industry standard. Yet it was based on a test that makes little sense given the reality of how most household fires start. It requires foam upholstery to be able to withstand 12 seconds of direct exposure to a "candle-like" flame. But fires are far more likely to be started by a smoldering cigarette than a candle; by the time it reaches the upholstery, researchers have found, the fire is too far along to be damped by chemical fire retardants.

Flame retardants don't stay within the furniture's upholstery. They migrate around the house, via household dust, and outside it. They are found in humans — especially infants, who spend a lot of time on the floor — and in the environment, including in wildlife. Various retardants have been linked to cancer, neurological and developmental problems, infertility and thyroid disruption. Some were voluntarily removed from the market and replaced with new chemicals later found to produce other health risks; some are no longer used in clothing but are still found in furniture.

Brown has brought the necessary decisiveness to a key environmental health issue. We hope the bureau with the long, long name works quickly to bring sense to the issue of household fire safety.

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