Bucking a Toxic Trend
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.
Bush, 49, is a bit of a contradiction, a blend of savvy, skeptical businessman and idealist. He’s a Republican, wary of regulations and conservative on fiscal policy, less so on social issues. He insists he is no environmentalist and resents those who use scare tactics. “Tree-huggers” and “overreacting, nose-in-the-air” types are what they are, he says.
When Bush first heard warnings about brominated flame retardants last year, he was dubious. But upon reading details of what scientists had reported, he confronted the manufacturer of penta, Great Lakes Chemical Co., and was appalled to learn that the company had no scientific data to refute it.
“My reaction turned to one of disgust,” he said. “Their unpreparedness and failure to warn us about impending action in Europe helped convince me that we would be better off without it.”
After some soul-searching, Bush concluded that he wasn’t willing to bet people’s lives that the scientists were wrong.
The strongest, most enduring bond in Bush’s life is the one he shares with what he calls his extended family: the relatives, friends and neighbors who work with him at Hickory Springs. And if the flame retardant is dangerous, he knows it is the people he loves the most who face the biggest health risk because they spend so much time around foam. “That’s pretty personal,” Bush said, “and that’s the reason that we made an early effort to do the ‘right’ thing. The message here is that fire retardant saves lives, but we have to use safe chemicals.”
Word of the IKEA directive against using penta reached Bush early this year, when a few IKEA suppliers phoned him to say they would no longer buy Hickory Springs’ foam as long as it contained PBDEs. Bush was ready for them. His largest plant was already PBDE-free.
But that was about to change.
A Complicated Recipe
Inside a cavernous factory in the heart of North Carolina, the crew at Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. is making buns.
A blend of resin, acetone, flame retardant and other chemicals slithers down the conveyor belt like a giant ribbon of whipped cream. By the time the creamy mixture reaches the end of the belt, it has been turned, purely by chemical reaction, into a 45-foot long block of white foam called a bun.
Bush stuck his neck out when he vowed to find alternatives to penta. Foam treated with the chemical represents about one-third of Hickory Springs’ production -- the foam manufactured for use in California. And changing ingredients in the precise recipes for foam would be tricky.
He contacted a chemical company, Akzo Nobel, which was developing an experimental, phosphorous-based flame retardant considered safer than penta. It raised costs of some foam by 20%, but after trials at his plant, it seemed effective.
By the end of 2002, Bush was proud to say that Hickory Springs had the only furniture foam plant in the nation to operate without PBDEs.
But then spring arrived in North Carolina. It was pushing the double 90s: 90% humidity and 90 degrees. On days like these, the middle of a foam block can swell to more than 350 degrees.
A worker sliced into the center of a bun and noticed that a stain, little more than a shadow, had spread through its core. After a few more batches, there was little doubt. The new flame retardant had scorched the foam. Scorching is a foamer’s nemesis because it turns the core of pure-white foam a dingy yellow, and no one knows the batch is discolored until it cools, 24 hours after it comes off the pouring line.
Workers in the testing laboratory were struggling with another problem. In the lab, hand-sized pieces of foam are hung every day from a rack and exposed to an open flame to determine how long and how much the material burns. The new formula foam was failing the tests. That meant it would not meet California’s standards. Similar flammability problems had also hampered the company’s plant in Commerce.
The crew tinkered with the formula for weeks. Meanwhile, Doug Sullivan, Hickory Springs’ technical director, was getting nervous. Every time a batch fails, it takes three or four days to make up for lost time and catch up with backlogged orders.
Bush knew he had to get the pouring line moving again. Foam is a cutthroat business, in which you can lose a customer if your product is priced one-tenth of a cent too high or you’re a day late with an order. In recent years, the furniture industry has been suffering one of its worst downturns. Bush risked losing one-third of the plant’s orders if he stopped using penta.
“It got to the point we were trying and trying and trying and we couldn’t let it jeopardize production,” Bush said. “I hated to back up. But, dammit, we have to stay in business.”
Soon afterward, a tanker truck dropped a month’s worth of penta -- 5,000 gallons -- at the factory door.
People watch TV on it, do office work on it, drive on it, stand on carpet that covers it. It looks harmless, seems inert. But lately scientists and environmentalists have been talking about foam as if it were poison.
Scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and European institutions are calling penta the single most worrisome industrial chemical in widespread use today, comparing it to DDT and PCBs, compounds banned a quarter-century ago.
In North America, levels in people and wildlife are doubling every few years, and it has already spread, via the air, as far as polar bears near the North Pole and sperm whales in deep ocean waters. The three highest recorded levels in breast milk so far are in a woman in Missouri, one in Oregon and one in Indiana.
Some scientists suspect that penta from furniture foam collects in household dust. Others say discarded sofas, carpet pads and car seats could be leaching penta into landfills that flow into waterways, where it contaminates fish.
An EPA scientist even speculated that in the future, foam cushions might have to be handled like a hazardous material. The foam and furniture industries, however, consider that ludicrous and remain dubious that furniture foam is responsible for the penta accumulating in human bodies
Despite the evidence of a growing health risk, use of penta remains legal. The EPA, saying it wants to do more research, has no plans to restrict its use nationally. California this summer enacted a law that bans products containing two types of PBDEs, including penta, but it doesn’t become effective until 2008.
The ban is a bit ironic because, Bush said, “the only reason we are using this stuff is because California told us to. They said make this foam safer.” Even though the flammability standards still stand -- in fact, the state has proposed making them even more stringent next year -- the industry’s main tool to comply with them will be outlawed.
The bottom line is that California wants flame-retarding foam, but doesn’t want flame retardants.
No Ready Substitute
In July, upon signing the bill banning penta in California, Gov. Gray Davis announced that “manufacturers and retailers can easily switch to other flame retardants and our air, rivers and ocean will be cleaner.”
But, in reality, no U.S. foam company has succeeded in ending its reliance on penta. So far, no other chemical works as well.
“If we were told tomorrow that we can’t use penta, we’d be in trouble,” said Herman Stone of the Polyurethane Foam Assn., an industry group.
Chemical manufacturers including Akzo Nobel and Great Lakes Chemical Co. have invested tens of millions of dollars in the past few years experimenting with less toxic retardants to replace penta, which is a $30-million-a-year market. “It will be very difficult to meet 2008, but we’re committed to do that,” said Anne Noonan, a vice president of Great Lakes Chemical, the only current maker of penta. “Foam making is not a science; it is an art. It takes a long time to change this market.”
In Europe, all furniture is already penta-free. Finding alternatives there was easier, Stone said, because European customers prefer denser, less springy foam in their furniture and are willing to pay more. Also, Europe has no flammability requirements except in Great Britain, where furniture foam is covered with a layer of melamine, a costly fiber that slows fires.
IKEA is the only retailer in the United States that insists on PBDE-free products. That raises the cost of its U.S. furniture about 10%, because its suppliers add melamine like they do in Britain, but it “pays off in the long run,” said Magnus Bjork, senior compliance manager at IKEA North America. “What costs you have, you can gain it back with consumer confidence.”
Discoloration is the major reason the U.S. foam industry has not switched. Most consumers do not know or care what color the foam is. But many furniture makers will not buy yellowish foam.
Bush says that if furniture makers and customers were “colorblind,” penta could be eliminated today.
Most people, he says, would tolerate yellowish foam if they knew the alternative was a chemical that could harm a baby’s brain. “We’ve tried to sell that point, but they [furniture makers] won’t hear of it,” Bush said. “The discoloration factor is a flimsy excuse, but it’s been this way for decades.”
The EPA has granted permission for sales of small volumes of several experimental compounds after companies conducted only brief initial screening for environmental effects.
Adam Peters, a chemical assessment scientist at Great Britain’s National Centre for Ecotoxicology and Hazardous Substances, said phosphorous flame retardants, the most popular alternative, “are generally likely to be of less concern.”
They have low toxicity, degrade more quickly, and do not accumulate in human and animal tissues. But he and other toxicologists caution that full details of their effects won’t be known until years of additional toxicity testing is conducted on lab animals.
“Are we exchanging the devil for the devil?” said Bill Perdue, the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn.’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs.
Bush is experimenting with new solutions and hoping to eliminate all brominated flame retardants at his plants by next year.
Since the onset of the industrial age, from the car industry’s battle against smog to invention of pollution-free paints, history has demonstrated that manufacturers can prevail over technical obstacles.
“We’re not giving up,” he said. “We will have a solution.”