Don't live in California? Here's why you should still care. The state is the only one in the nation that requires furniture to meet a standard that requires polyurethane foam to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. Because of the state's huge population (38 million people), furniture manufacturers make all their furniture to meet the California standard, regardless of where it's sold. The problem is that, until now, the standard, known as TB117, required the use of chemical flame retardants. Those chemicals that have been linked to infertility, cancer, lowered IQ, neurological problems, and even diabetes, and they're suspected of contributing to rising rates of autism.
A landmark investigative series, published in May 2012 in The Chicago Tribune and profiled in a recent HBO documentary called Toxic Hot Seat, revealed the decades-long efforts by chemical and tobacco companies to get these chemicals in furniture, despite having zero concrete evidence that they're effective in slowing fires. When burned, flame retardants produce more toxic smoke and expose firefighters to known carcinogens.
The new standard, known as TB117–2013, requires furniture to meet the same flame-resistance standards but doesn't require manufacturers to use chemicals in order to do to so. Nowadays, furniture manufacturers can make their products flame retardant simply by choosing the right upholstery fabrics, ones more inherently fire resistant or with weave patterns that can slow fires much more effectively than chemicals do and without the associated health problems.
New furniture that meets the updated standard will have a hangtag that that says "Complies with CA TB117–2013" or similar language. That "–2013" is key, since you're likely to find older furniture that meets the old toxic standard with hangtags that say "Complies with CA TB117" still on the market. When you do see the updated tags, always ask if the furniture contains flame-retardant chemicals. Although the new standard can be met without flame retardants, it does not ban their use.
For more information on where to purchase flame-retardant-free furniture, visit greensciencepolicy.org/consumers to find a list of manufacturers who state their furniture is free of flame retardants. This list will greatly expand in 2014 when the new standard goes into effect.
To read about what these untested, unregulated chemicals are doing to you, check out these 8 Sickening Facts about Flame Retardants.