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Flame-Retardant Decision Challenged

Thursday, June 19, 2014

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Chemical makers are urging a leading heath-management organization to reconsider its decision to stop buying furniture made with flame-retardant chemicals.

Kaiser Permanente—an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit that spends roughly $30 million a year furnishing its hundreds of hospitals, medical offices and other buildings—recently announced a new commitment to phase out the use of upholstered furniture treated with flame retardants.

Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente

On June 3, Kaiser Permanente said it would stop purchasing furniture made with polyurethane that contains flame-retardant chemicals. Kaiser Permanente is one of the largest nonprofit health management organizations in the United States.

Kaiser Permanente said its decision stemmed from concerns over the chemicals’ reported health impacts on children, pregnant women and the public. The phase-out is likely to affect 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and D.C. by 2015.

Fire Safety Concerns

Now, however, the decision has spurred criticism from the American Chemistry Council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA). The advocacy group has asked Kaiser Permanente to rescind the decision, saying it “reduces fire safety in health-care facilities.”

The group also asked the hospital system to meet with the chemical manufacturers group to discuss the current scientific evidence on flame retardants. The alliance sent a letter Tuesday (June 17) voicing its concerns and making its meeting request.

Action Defended

In an e-mailed statement responding to the letter, Kaiser Permanente reiterated why it decided to stop purchasing the chemical-laden furniture.

“Kaiser Permanente made its decision to stop purchasing upholstered furniture treated with chemical fire-retardants based on the recent California regulatory action that found the chemicals gave no fire-safety benefit,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president, the hospital system’s Employee Safety, Health and Wellness and Environmental Stewardship Officer.

“This, combined with the toxicity of the chemicals, which have been linked in studies to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, among other health problems, are the compelling reasons for taking action. Where there is credible evidence of harm, we are committed to finding safer alternatives,” she said.

Letter of Concern

In the letter to Bernard J. Tyson, the chairman and CEO of the hospital system, ACC President and CEO Cal Dooley wrote, “Flame retardants are an important tool in the fire safety tool box.”

“They represent an important layer of fire protection in hospitals, health care facilities, and medical offices.

“The use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture can help prevent fires from starting and/or slow the rate at which small fires become big fires, providing valuable time for persons to escape danger.”

Cal Dooley

American Chemistry Council President and CEO Cal Dooley says flame-retardant chemicals have "helped the healthcare industry achieve a low incidence of fire-related deaths and injuries."

As noted in its statement, Kaiser’s decision to initiate its phase-out follows a regulation update by California lawmakers.

The new regulation does not ban flame retardants. However, it states that furniture manufacturers can meet flammability standards (withstanding smolders) without the use of fire-retardant chemicals.

Safety Measure

The chemical industry maintains that flame retardants have played a measurable role in reducing the occurrence of fires and in protecting vulnerable communities.

Specifically, flame retardants “helped the health-care industry achieve a low incidence of fire-related deaths and injuries,” Dooley stated in the letter. 


This video, posted to YouTube by the American Chemistry Council, offers information regarding flame retardants used in furniture.

“By prohibiting flame retardants in furniture at its facilities, Kaiser will increase its reliance on technologies designed to reduce the effects of a fire after it has started (e.g., sprinklers), rather than preventing fires from starting in the first place.”

Chemical Targeted

Moreover, the letter contends that Kaiser Permanente's decision is “based on the potential health effects of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—a group of flame retardants that are no longer on the market.” 

California state capitol
Henri Sivonen / Flickr

California lawmakers have recently updated the state's flame retardant standard for upholstered furniture.

All flame retardants on the market today are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other global regulatory agencies for safety, the flame-retardant group added. It said the EPA has recently identified 50 flame retardants that would protect people from fires while posing little to no risk to human health.

The group urges Kaiser Permanente to “give further consideration to the recently announced policy for purchasing upholstered furniture.”


Tagged categories: American Chemistry Council; Construction chemicals; EPA; Flame-retardant coatings; Good Technical Practice; Health Care/Hospitals; Polyurethane; Regulations

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