What should I know about Flame Retardants in my furniture?
The Bottom Line: When buying new, avoid upholstered furniture with a label stating it meets TB117. Instead, look for the TB117-2013 label on products, and then – and this is the important part – verify with your retailer or manufacturer that the sofa or chair you are buying does not contain flame retardants.
Note: In 2021, NEW labeling requirements were federally mandated to go into effect in June 2022, which will make it easier for consumers to know what they’re buying AND to know more about the materials that are used in reupholstery of their furniture.
The Good News: You can begin your journey to a healthier home by answering a few quick questions to determine the likelihood that your existing furniture contains Flame Retardants.
Scientists at Duke University’s Superfund Research Center are examining the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture. See their periodically updated findings here.
How do they get into my body?
TCEP, PBDEs, and several other chemical compounds are flame retardants that have historically been used in furniture foam. Over time these chemicals escape from the foam and stick to house dust. The dust subsequently lands on household surfaces, including toys and food, and is eventually ingested. Young children are the most likely to be exposed because of their tendency to put toys and their hands into their mouths.
According to EWG (Environmental Working Group), the form of PBDEs used in foam furniture was withdrawn from the US market in 2005, but even those items without PBDEs might contain poorly studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects. This is why it is important to ask before buying.
What are these chemicals doing in my furniture to begin with?
The Old Law: A California furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) led to the use of harmful and ultimately unnecessary flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture foam across the US and Canada from 1975 to 2013. Even though TB 117 was a California standard, many manufacturers chose to sell TB 117-compliant products to avoid maintaining a double inventory and for defense against liability claims.
The Catch: The old law did not address the primary ignition source (the cover fabric), and it did not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time – It was ultimately determined that untreated furniture and TB 117-compliant furniture burn similarly. Thus millions have been (and continue to be) exposed to harmful chemicals in their own homes.
The New Law: TB 117 has been updated and replaced by TB 117-2013. The new standard provides increased fire safety without the use of flame retardants. Manufacturers can make flame retardant-free furniture under the new regulation beginning January 2014. However, it’s important to note that although the new standard can be met without flame retardants, it does NOT ban their use, so be sure to ASK, even if you see the TB 117-2013 label.
(Thanks to Green Science Policy Institute for this information)
How does the new law affect my upholstery choices?
If your furniture does contain flame retardants, the chances are that 80-100% of the chemicals are found in the foam inside removable cushions. However, some furniture uses foam in the padding of the frame, which is more difficult to access.
Cushions: It’s an easy task to change out the cushion foam in your furniture, and that may well be the extent your chemical exposure solution. You can change the foam yourself or ask your local upholstery shop to do it for you. Be sure to insist on flame retardant-free foam.
The Green Science Policy Institute of California has spearheaded the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange Program. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, the program may be able to help you connect with a safe source of foam in your area. If you can’t find a local source, you can download our free resource: Buying Guide for Natural Upholstery Materials, which itemizes the alternative materials that are available for upholstery.
Upholstery Frame Padding: Once the cushions are replaced, how do you tell what the frame padding in that chair or sofa is made of? Identifying the material that wraps your chair’s frame – without tearing off the cover fabric – can be a challenge, but it’s possible to make an accurate guess. Here are some tips that may help:
- Remember the ‘rule of 1975’ – if your piece was made before 1975 , it probably does not contain FRs.
- The ‘squish’ test: if the surface of an arm or back compresses easily and springs back quickly when you press a finger into it, chances are it’s foam under there. If it’s firm and dense without much give, it may have a cotton upholstery batting or horsehair (common in antiques and traditional upholstery work) foundation, which most likely is not treated.
- Polyester batting is used to soften the edges of cushions and foundation layers next to the outside fabric. Although not a natural material, it is not treated itself, so if it covers a cotton layer, should be okay. If it covers foam, it should be replaced.
For more on flame retardants, see:
- Flame Retardants and your Furniture – Improving your Indoor Environment
- Interpreting the CA Flame Retardants Standard for Upholstered Furniture
Also check out these non-profit groups dedicated to accurate reporting:
- Green Science Policy Institute
- Environmental Working Group
- Safer Chemicals Coalition
- Washington Toxics Coalition
Ready for more tips, guides, design ideas and stories to help you get started with the right upholstery materials and learn how to use them? Sign up for our mailing list to stay in the loop.
Thank you SO MUCH for this post and the excellent compilation of resources you’ve brought together here. I am a new upholsterer but have been doing my own home decor work for years, and have always insisted on completely stripping any piece that was made after the 60’s or so and replacing all stuffing with cotton, latex foam and poly batting.
I might add that for me, learning traditional upholstery techniques (that the use of foam has largely replaced) such as building up stuffing edges with horsehair, actually adds to my enjoyment of re-building a piece. :-)
I was first made aware of the fire-retardant issue after getting my beloved house cats and reading of their susceptibility to chemical overloads from exposure to modern home furnishings. Using caution when recovering or acquiring these treated materials is so important for homeowners, parents and pet-owners, as well as professionals, to take note of.
which is a write-up of this study on the disruption PCBEs can inflict on cats’ thyroid health, and speculates on what this means for their human owners as well: