Flame Retardants in Your Furniture


North Americans have some of the highest levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) chemicals in their bloodstream in the world and California has some of the strictest flame retardant policies in the United States. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not. While many view California as the most socially and environmentally progressive state in the nation, California Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, may have changed that opinion.

TB 117, a furniture flammability standard established in 1975, remains in effect today, despite great health, environmental and political opposition. The law calls for a unique 12 second open flame standard whereby any piece of furniture sold in California must not ignite within 12 seconds of exposure. This law is not only applied in California but in approximately 30% of furniture sold in the U.S. and Canada.

TB 117 has a particularly broad reach as the law focuses on the foam inside furniture and not just surface material. This includes bedding, box springs, seating and flexible polyurethane foam. Sadly, what was intended to be a protective life-saving measure in response to the 1950s cigarette craze is now leaving many citizens less concerned about a potential house fire and more concerned about what lurks within their household furniture on a daily basis; flame retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive abnormalities, learning disabilities and thyroid irregularity. Exposure is particularly hazardous for firefighters, pregnant women and children.

As for chemicals, from 1975 until 2004, TB 117 was met with penta-brominated diphenyl ether (pentaBDE), a chemical with known toxicity and persistence in humans and animals. Other chemicals used have historically included brominated or chlorinated flame retardants including brominated Tris, chlorinated Tris or TDCP, and the present Firemaster 500, which was introduced in 2004 as a replacement for pentaBDE and is currently under scrutiny by the U.S. EPA as a “safe” alternative to the previously used chemicals.

Nonetheless, numerous regulatory loopholes continue to exist. While a number of these chemicals have since been regulated from certain products in the United States, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that Deca, a form of PBDEs, is often unregulated and undetected and therefore continues to enter our bloodstream. In fact, EWG studies of umbilical cord blood found PBDEs present in 10 of 10 newborns.

Various California state bills attempting to address the negative health and environmental impacts of flame retardants, including Senator Leno’s SB 147, the “Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act,” and AB 2197, Assemblywoman Mitchell’s bill, have died in the state legislature predominantly due to chemical lobby opposition and influence. Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal body in charge of regulating national flame retardant policy, has historically been less stringent than California flame retardant policy.

Interestingly, CPSC staff published a memorandum titled “Environmental Assessment of Regulatory Alternatives for Addressing Upholstered Furniture Flammability” given rising public concern over hazardous chemical exposure in their homes. The memo discusses the importance of considering alternatives to standard upholstered fire retardants with respect to any negative health and environmental impact.

While flame retardants are prolific and the issue can be overwhelming, it’s important to stay educated and informed so you can make the best consumer decisions possible. Some options include asking your local retailer for organic mattress alternatives, writing to your representatives and being sure to inspect your furniture, particularly if you live in California, for the warning label stating:


To learn more about flame retardants and what you can do to protect yourself, your family and our environment from chemical exposure, you can sign up for the following free, public webinar on April 19th:

Toxic Flame Retardants in Consumer Products: Health Dangers, the Need for Policy Changes, and What You Can Do.

Thursday April 19th, 11 am PACIFIC/ 2pm EASTERN. RSVP here

Facilitator: Judith Robinson, Environmental Health Fund


Arlene Blum, Green Science Policy Institute

Kathleen Curtis, Clean and Healthy New York

Michael Schade, Center for Health, Environment and Justice

Matt Vinci, Vermont firefighter

Host: Business Ethics Network


Related Stories:

Flame Retardant In Your Soda

8 Deadly Toxins Found In Your Cheap Jewelry

Going to the Office? Be Careful, It Is A Chemical Soup


Photo Credit: Horia Varlan


Sue H.
.5 years ago

I need a new bed and will buy a barrier cloth cover for the mattress. Barrier cloth prevents the chemicals from escaping the mattress. Pity there is no such thing for a new sofa though.

Amanda Goodwin
Amanda Goodwin5 years ago


Marilyn L.
Marilyn L5 years ago


Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Thanks for this article. It will definitely make me more aware of what is being brought into my space.

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


Bridget Nicole
Bridget Nicole5 years ago

the flashpoint or ignition temp. required to burst in flames or burn up is a good thing - but it shouldnt expose to chemicals like this - just make it so a lit ciggarette or a sofa over a heater vent wont catch fire, and ill feel safe.

Steve R.
Steve R5 years ago

California doesn't really care - it makes manufacturers of just about everything on the planet put a label on their products that reads, "Known to the State of California to cause cancer".

I guess California thinks that makes the use of dangerous substances okay.

Alice Lewis
Alice Mae L5 years ago

The only piece of furniture I have that has foam is the mattress. I've been looking into the organic/safer versions for next time. Everything else is solid wood. I'm even taking out the kitchen cabinetry (lots of formaldehyde and other crap) a little at a time and replacing with repurposed pieces of old wood furniture. I just like it better... the health benefits are a bonus. If theres going to be any upholstery, I'll do it myself using natural materials (or as close as I can get). Try and make the healthier choices when it comes to home furnishings. Your body, and your children, will thank you for it.

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

oh well, there's chemicals in everything

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad5 years ago

I figure if your home goes up in smoke, that sofa is going to burn to the point of non usability anyway. So why have the flame retardant in the furniture as the likelihood of subjecting oneself to the dangers of everyday exposure, greatly outweigh the mere possibility of the otherwise.