Flammability Updates - Is your futon fire retardant?

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by Timothy Jacobs


Flammability Updates & News

Federal and State Standards; and the Lowdown for Futon Retailers and Manufacturers on PBDEs.

A New Chief for the California Bureau of Home Furnishings

Brian Stiger has been named the acting Chief of the California BHFTI, after Lynn Morris stepped down from that position in April 2004. Ms. Morris had been appointed by former Governor Gray Davis. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will shortly make a permanent appointment to the post.

The Latest on California Tech Bulletin TB 603

The Cal Bureau’s May 2004 “Licensee Information Sheet” states that California Technical Bulletin 603, “will go into effect Jan. 1, 2005. All mattresses, box springs and futons manufactured after that date for sale to California consumers must be certified by the manufacturer to comply with the Technical Bulletin 603 standard, and be labeled accordingly.”

The information sheet goes on to say, “manufacturers are expected to enact all due-diligence steps required to self-certify products to meet the Technical Bulletin 603 standard,” and that enforcement of the new standard will include the following:

“[I]nspections of licensee facilities and product testing to verify compliance with the Technical Bulletin 603 regulations. Violations could result in citations, fines, orders to withhold products from sale, and license revocation.”

Expanding on this, the text goes into the licensing and labeling arena: “All companies that manufacture wholesale import or retail bedding and upholstered furniture to California consumers must be licensed by BHFTI.”

New labeling requirements are such that TB 603 labels will include a Technical Bulletin 603 compliance statement and the date of manufacture. A further labeling stipulation requires that “only products certified by the manufacturer to pass the Technical Bulletin 603 test shall be labeled [with the words] ‘This product meets the requirements of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 603.’” The labeling otherwise follows the current California guidelines. One note to component manufacturers: the rubrics of TB 603 labeling prohibit any claims “that any component material, fabric, barrier, sewing thread, tape edge or filling material, etc., is itself ‘TB 603 Certified,’ ‘TB 603 Compliant’ or ‘Approved by BHFTI’... as Technical Bulletin 603 involves no component testing or certification.”

The reasoning behind this is that TB 603 applies only to “home furnishings products with hidden filling material, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and mattress pads.” For more details, contact the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, 3485 Orange Grove Ave., North Highlands, CA 95660-5595; www.bhfti.ca.gov; or phone 916-574-2041.

The Federal Standard in Development

Ken Giles, Media Relations Officer for the US Consumer Products Safety Commission recently reassured me that there is no plan on the part of the CPSC to meld the upcoming new national mattress standard with the upcoming upholstered furniture standard—that the federal level intention is to maintain “parallel standards.” As I said in my previous column, futons may well face two national standards as a result.

PBDEs and Flammability— Mysterious, but “Not to Worry”

Retailers: read this so that you can be informed. Your customers may be reading news stories, or seeing news reports on television, vilifying the foam used in your futons. So that you can give informed answers to assure inquiring customers, we present the following information.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of talk in the media about PBDEs, also known as polybrominated diphenylethers—these are part of a larger chemical group known as brominated flame retardants, and are the fire-retardant chemicals that have often been used to fireproof foam. Studies have shown that these chemicals have been detected in mothers’ breast milk, indicating that in some way, they can migrate into human tissues (there is some speculation that particles are inhaled). On the other hand, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that there is no conclusive evidence that they cause harm—even though most of us would prefer to avoid taking anything into our bodies that we haven’t consented to.

For us, of course, for our industry, the concern centers on mattresses and futons. Futons and mattresses are not the only source of PBDEs. In our daily lives, we are surrounded by PBDEs in every fire-retardant item we own—from pajamas to televisions to computer casings. And again, there is no conclusion as to what harm, if any, they cause.

The foam industry has already taken steps to provide alternative solutions to the use of PBDEs—and some of these alternatives are probably already finding their way into the foam contained within your futon inventories.

Further, the EPA makes the following statement on their website (www.epa.gov), in a news release authored by the EPA’s David Deegan in November of 2003 (for more information, you can reach him at deegan.dave@epa.gov): “Brominated flame retardants are used in many consumer products. These chemicals provide a very important benefit to people because of their ability to slow ignition and rate of fire growth, and therefore increase available escape time in the event of a fire...EPA has not concluded that PBDEs pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment...the Agency will continue to assess available information, which would allow a better understanding of any potential risks associated with PBDEs. EPA does not believe that there is a need to remove or replace products that may contain these chemicals.”

However, the same press release lauds The Great Lakes Chemical Corp. of West Lafayette, Ind., “the only US manufacturer of Penta and one of a small number of Octa manufacturers,” for its decision to voluntarily phase out production of Penta and Octa by the end of 2004. This is seen as a move to more swiftly shift industry focus on less questionable flame-retardant alternatives, according to the EPA’s Acting Deputy Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, who is quoted in the press release. There was some indication in the text that the EPA “may take additional steps to ensure that no new uses of Penta or Octa are allowed into the marketplace.”

Finally, we are told in the same source that the EPA has recently “completed a preliminary assessment of a Penta substitute, Firemaster® 550, and has concluded that this alternative chemical is not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic to aquatic organisms. The substitute also provides the important fire safety performance standards necessary for use in consumer products. The Agency will continue to work with Great Lakes and other companies on the development of substitutes, alternatives and additional health and exposure testing on the substitutes.”

PBDE Input from the US CPSC and the Polyurethane Foam Association

US CPSC Media Relations Officer Ken Giles spoke with me recently. His take on the PBDE question was also that there are numerous answers to the replacement of PBDEs. He cited a National Academy of Sciences study to the effect that there are 14 possible flame-retardant ticking and fabrics chemicals, the majority of which are completely benign.

In terms of the new national mattress standard, Giles felt that the PBDE question does not affect the pace of development for that standard, as, like California’s TB 603, the new national standard is not a design standard which precisely dictates materials and construction. Rather, it is a performance standard, in which only the end result matters.

Bob Luedeka, Associate Director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, answered my questions put to him via his e-mail link on the PFA’s website (www.pfa.org). Bob said, in regard to California’s TB 603 legislation, that the issue of flame retardant foam would not be a factor, for, as we have seen from the above paragraphs on the California situation, TB 603 is a composite standard—not a component standard. In such a scenario, Luedeka said, on behalf of PFA, “We believe that most manufacturers will opt to use an ignition barrier material...mattress manufacturers can obtain information from their foam suppliers regarding possible combustion modification content and the technology options that may be available to help achieve desired FR performance. ”

California Technical Bulletin 117 and PBDEs

Then again, there is the question of manufacturers answering to California’s TB 117 component standard. There are, as we have said, other products that can fill the gap left by the PBDEs that are being phased out (again, in what should again be noted as simply a precautionary move on the part of industry). Again, with intent to be cautious, several states have banned products containing PBDEs, with set dates for phasing them out. California’s Assembly Bill 302, for instance, has set the discontinuation date for sale of products containing PBDEs at January 1, 2008.

California Bureau Research and Development Manager John McCormack stresses that there are alternatives to the PBDEs that are already in use by industry. He adds that the TB 117 standard is an important standard and will be continued. We should note, also, that the California Bureau has been historically willing to help manufacturers find solutions to their compliance questions.

The California Bureau’s Information Officer Miles Bristow directed me to the BHFTI “Statement on Use of Fire Retardant Chemicals,” on their website at www.bhfti.ca.gov/index.html (look under the “What’s New” link). In part, this statement says: “Compliance with state flammability standards can generally be achieved in a variety of ways. These include substitution of components that are inherently less ignition-prone or less flammable, or redesign of the product to minimize ease of fire ignition and/or reduce the rate at which fire spreads. Some of the regulations, such as the standard for the flame resistance of polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture, may require the use of fire retardants...The products and technologies used to meet flammability standards must be effective but safe—in use, if involved in a fire, and when disposed or recycled...While BHFTI does not regulate fire retardants used in consumer products, we do support and encourage research and investigation into identifying and mitigating any health effects regarding any flame retardant that is used...If environmental-protection agencies find that any fire retardant used to meet home furnishings flammability standards is harmful, our performance-based flammability regulations are intended to allow alternative strategies to be deployed...BHFTI is aware that the U.S. fire retardant industry is currently involved in the development of environmentally safe, alternative fire retardants....”

Again, here we have a results-based standard, not a design standard—the design of your futon is up to you, as long as the elements involved pass the flammability (and other applicable state and federal standards) standards. Some non-treated materials are naturally fire retardant; some do better with a higher level of purity. And again, there are fire retardants out there that are not PBDEs (or OBDES, as Octa is sometimes referred to). Please see the contact numbers given above for more information.

Also, manufacturers, ask your foam supplier about all this. As a trusted customer, your inquiries should be more than welcomed by your supplier—who will be more than willing to help with solutions.



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