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Flame Retardant Chemicals in House Dust, Sofas

California’s 12-Second Rule

Blum and Dodson say California’s furniture flammability standards -- the strictest in the nation -- have led to an increase in exposures to flame retardant chemicals nationwide.

California law requires that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand a small flame like a candle for at least 12 seconds without igniting.

This is done by adding large amounts of flame retardant chemicals. Since furniture manufacturers typically want to avoid separate inventories for different markets, most of the upholstered goods sold in the U.S. comply with the California standards.

As foam ages, the chemicals escape and circulate in the air, Blum says.

Blum says the irony is that the flame retardants may not only be harming our health in the absence of fire, but they may be doing little to protect us when fires happen.

Flame Retardants May Not Stop Fires

That view is shared by a fire safety scientist whose research was used to promote the use of flame retardants in foam used in upholstered furniture.

Vytenis Babrauskas says the research was distorted by the chemical industry to suggest that flame retardants are far more flame resistant in foam products than they actually are, and that they are safe when they do catch fire.

He says there is no need for fire retardants in building insulation or foams used in upholstered furniture.

Industry Responds to Studies

In a statement issued in response to the studies, the trade group American Chemistry Council, which represents the flame retardant industry, said that there was nothing in the studies to indicate that the levels of flame retardants posed a health hazard.

“Statistics show that home fires from open flame ignition sources are still a significant problem,” the statement says. “Flame retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards and are designed to prevent fires from starting and, if a fire does occur, slow its spread and provide valuable escape time. ... It’s important to remember that the flame retardants currently in use, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and national regulators around the globe.”

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