The chemical industry's leading trade group says adding fire-snuffing chemicals to furniture foam "can be the difference between life and death."
But when scientists in a government lab touched a small flame to a pair of upholstered chairs — one with a flame retardant in the foam and one without — both were engulfed in flames within four minutes.
"We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection," said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests at a laboratory outside Washington.
Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.
The previously undisclosed test results call into question the widespread use of flame retardants in household furniture. Some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and developmental problems.
Meanwhile, research is finding there are more effective ways to prevent furniture fires — using specially designed upholstery that resists smoldering cigarettes or adding fire-resistant barriers underneath the fabric.
The American Chemistry Council, the industry trade group, declined to answer specific questions about the safety commission's research but in an email said flame retardants are "a key component in reducing the devastating impact of fires on people, property and the environment."
For decades, furniture manufacturers have been relying on the chemicals to meet a flammability standard that California adopted in 1975. Much of the upholstered furniture sold nationwide is built to comply with the standard.
Albemarle Corp., one of the world's largest manufacturers of flame retardants, said in a written statement that "the incidence of damage, injury and death caused by fires related to home furnishings has decreased significantly" since California adopted its furniture rule.
But Ray and other government experts say declining smoking rates and increased use of smoke detectors have played major roles in reducing fire deaths and damage.
Federal regulators have been wrestling with the issue of how to fireproof furniture for years. The safety commission now believes the best solution is to require upholstery to resist smoldering cigarettes, which federal statistics show are by far the chief cause of furniture fires.
That proposal, which has yet to be enacted, would make the California standard unnecessary. Most of the furniture sold today already is covered with fabrics that comply with the proposed smolder standard, Ray said. If furniture fabric stops a fire from starting in the first place, he said, there is no reason to keep adding flame retardant chemicals to the foam underneath.
Testing by government and independent scientists suggests additional steps might be needed to ensure that furniture can resist flames from lighters and candles. But sharp differences remain about whether those types of fires are common enough to demand a standard that would address them.
In the safety commission's tests, researchers took two other chairs and added a barrier of acrylic, glass and polyester fibers between the upholstery and the foam. Four minutes after being lit, the fires went out without intervention from the researchers, charring only the yellow, floral-print fabric on the back of the chairs.
Similar research by Northbrook-based Underwriters Laboratories found that replacing the normal polyester wrapping around furniture foam with a fire-resistant layer was much more effective at slowing fire than adding flame retardants to the foam.
Mattress manufacturers already use flame-resistant barriers to meet national fire-safety standards. These barriers are typically made of chemical-free materials or safer chemicals than those commonly added to foam.
In the UL tests, chairs equipped with fire-resistant barriers burned much more slowly than chairs without them. The fires also didn't spread throughout a simulated living room until well after the time when firefighters typically arrive. Some of the test fires extinguished on their own.
The researchers also tested chairs with treated furniture foam and others with regular foam. The regular chairs burned slightly hotter than the ones with flame retardants, but all of the fires quickly grew to engulf the entire room, according to a video and slide presentation during a March workshop at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
"There wasn't a meaningful difference," Tom Fabian, manager of UL's fire hazards research, said later in an interview. "There are other ways that are more effective and avoid the potential risks of those (flame retardant) chemicals."
The trade group for foam manufacturers supports replacing the California standard with a federal smolder standard but opposes attempts to add a requirement for fire-resistant barriers, saying they would make furniture uncomfortable. Foam makers also contend that barriers are too expensive to be used in all furniture.
As for flame retardants, the Polyurethane Foam Association said its members don't like using them but do so to meet the California standard.
"We know we have an environmental problem," said Bob Luedeka, the trade group's executive director. "It would be nice if we had a (flame retardant) product that didn't have so many question marks attached to it."
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