Judge Tosses Flame Retardant Challenge


A California court has upheld the state's new standard on furniture flammability, rejecting a challenge by a major flame-retardant maker and the chemical industry.

The Sacramento Superior Court ruled Friday (Aug. 29) against Chemtura Corp. and the American Chemistry Council in their bid to get the standard overturned.

The decision came a day after California lawmakers passed new legislation (SB-1019) that would require labels on new furniture containing flame retardants.

What Changes

Technical Bulletin 117-2013, approved in November 2013, updates California's 40-year-old flammability standards to reduce toxic flame retardants.

The standard, which took effect Jan. 1, 2014, was supported by public health and environmental advocates as well as the California Professional Firefighters organization.

The new standard requires that upholstered furniture resist smoldering materials, such as cigarettes, which are the leading cause of furniture fires. The old standard required resistance to an open flame for 12 seconds, a tough standard that required treatment of furniture foam with flame-retardant chemicals.

Flame test
Micon / Wikipedia

Plaintiff Chemtura Corp., a major manufacturer of flame retardants, contends that the new standard "reduces fire safety" by eliminating the open-flame ignition test.

The new standard allows use of barrier materials for smolder-prone materials. Because the filling materials will no longer be subjected to open flame testing, some manufacturers have indicated they will not have to use flame retardants to treat the filling materials.

Although the new standard does not ban flame-retardant foam, it allowed manufacturers to produce upholstered furniture without flame-retardant foam, and many manufacturers say they can do so.

In addition, the labeling bill approved last week is widely seen as tightening the noose on chemical flame retardants.

Although the standard and bill are specific to California, many manufacturers use that state's standards for all upholstery to avoid producing multiple inventories, according to the industry publication Furniture Today.

Hot Seat

California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the updated standard after increasing public concern over the widespread use of flame retardants.

The publicity included a 2012 Chicago Tribune series, "Playing with Fire," that alleged longtime deceptive campaigns by the chemical industry over the risks and effectiveness of chemical flame retardants.

Tony Stefani
Chris Jordan-Block / Earthjustice

Retired firefighter Capt. Tony Stefani founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation after developing a rare form of cancer usually found in the chemical industry.

In November 2013, meanwhile, HBO weighed in with the documentary "Toxic Hot Seat," which drew similar conclusions.

Challenge Denied

In its challenge, Chemtura contended that California's Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation did not have the authority to change or eliminate the open-flame standard.

"Smolder testing is ... not a subsitute for open-flame testing and never has been," the plaintiffs argued in a brief last month. "The Bureau's asserted aim to improve the smolder (cigarette) test for furniture is not an excuse to disregard an open-flame standard."

The new standard effectively makes it "now acceptable to allow furniture fires caused by open-flame sources," Chemtura argued.

In his ruling, Judge Michael Kenny said Chemtura's reasoning "would produce absurd results," according to the Chicago Tribune. The opinion was not immediately available.

Disclosure Bill

The new furniture labeling bill cites studies showing that firefighters "have a significantly elevated risk of cancer that may be attributed to toxic chemicals they inhale, including flame retardants" and that "exposure to flame retardants to cancer, lower IQs and attention problems, male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls."

American Chemistry Council via Earthjustice.org

Chemical flame retardants, widely used, are raising public-health concerns.

Meanwhile, the bill says, the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation reviewed studies and concluded that "fire-retardant (FR) tested foam does not provide a meaningful difference in egress time from non-FR foam and increases smoldering propensity.”

Appeal Considered

Chemtura said in a statement that it was "disappointed" by the ruling and was weighing an appeal.

"The real issue here is protecting the public from regulatory actions that jeopardize consumer fire safety," the company said.

"Open flames are a significant ignition risk due to use of candles, lighters and matches. As a result, the new standard reduces fire safety."


Tagged categories: American Chemistry Council; Certifications and standards; Fire; Flame-retardant coatings; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; North America

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