07/20/2012

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TB 117 revision fast tracked: FR chemicals may be removed, but fire safety remains an issue

This 30 year old standard uses an open flame test that requires that producers of foam for furniture use large amounts of flame retardant chemicals. That rule has become a de facto US national standard for many foam and furniture manufacturers, however analysis of medical reports over the past decade have shown toxic chemicals in the flame retardants may cause neurological and reproductive damage, reduced fertility, and in firefighters, elevated rates of cancer.In response to this request, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced plans to investigate some of the flame retardants noted in these articles and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has now asked for special authority in a Senate subcommittee hearing to speed removal of dangerous flame retardants in upholstered furniture. EPA officials also told senators that the flame retardant issue illustrates several shortcomings of the Toxic Substances Control Act, such as allowing chemical companies to put their products on the market without proving they are safe. Even before governor Brown's announcement last week, this organisation has been working on ideas for the rule change, and a move away from the use of chemical flame retardants is expected to happen quickly. "Based on governor Brown's statement, I would expect them to move away from FR chemistry in the short term and then possibly create a mechanism for identifying safe and effective FR chemicals,” explained Andy Counts, CEO, American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA). If flame retardant chemicals are not used in furniture foams, then fabric barriers may be sought to address flammability issues. Representatives of AHFA, the trade group of manufacturers, importers and suppliers have been meeting with California's Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI). This organisation is expected to take the lead in revising and reviewing the current standard and has recently released a draft copy of TB 117-2012 with proposed requirements, test procedure and apparatus for testing smoulder resistance of upholstered furniture. A smoulder test would simulate a cigarette dropped on upholstery. The upholstered furniture industry fear that standards and techniques introduced into the US mattress industry, may be applied to their products. "A mattress is a horizontal slab that can be enclosed in a barrier, like putting a sock around it and sewing it up”, Counts said. "Fire naturally rises vertically, and is less likely to spread horizontally. That makes passing those testing methods easier for mattresses than for upholstery, which has many vertical surfaces”, he explained. In addition, barrier textiles that have been developed to suit California's TB 113 for hotel mattresses or certain British flammability standards are thought to make upholstered furniture noticeably less comfortable. According to Robert Luedeka, Executive Director of the Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA), his members continue to ask for what industry did three years ago: a temporary suspension of California's small open flame requirement for resilient filling materials until more information is available on technologies and chemicals used to meet it. Nationally, the CPSC has been working on a national flammability rule for upholstery since 2008. The proposed CPSC standard looks to use fire blocking barriers if the cover fabric does not resist smoulder ignition. Under this proposal rule a manufacturer or importer would have to choose whether to use a smouldering or open flame test. Products would have to be labelled to show which compliance test is has met. Meanwhile, a group of environmental and health advocates in California met in San Francisco last week and called TB 117 obsolete and ineffective, saying it also contributes to cancer and other health risks. Opponents of FR chemicals suggest that the number of deaths from open flame causes like matches, lighters and candles has remained steady at about 100 per year for the past 20 years and that therefore the use of these chemicals is not beneficial. Firefighters have also claimed that medical reports suggest that they show a higher incidence of cancers than the general population and that this could be due to the use of fire retardant chemicals. In contrast, chemical manufacturer Albemarle offered its encouragement to recent efforts announced by California governor Brown, the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and the Senate Appropriations Committee to assess the need for improvements in fire safety standards for home furnishings. "California should be congratulated for their pioneering standard-setting efforts of 1975, which focused on ignition of furniture foam by an open flame,” said Dr. David Clary, Albemarle Chief Sustainability Officer. "We are encouraged that fire safety standards are being revisited after 35 years because fire remains a very real problem in the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in the United States alone, fires currently cause one civilian death every 2 hours 49 minutes, an injury every 30 minutes, and one building fire every 65 seconds.” California's TB 117 recognises open flames as an important source of home fires. According to the NFPA, during the period 2005 - 2009, open flames caused more than one in five of the upholstered furniture fires and 12 % of the associated deaths in the USA. A recent study funded by the US government shows fire safety standards that address open flames as a source of fires provide increased escape time and the highest level of safety. Other regulatory efforts since 1975 demonstrate that California TB 117 can be improved. For example, in 1988, in recognition of advances in science and technology Great Britain published a stricter standard, which considers different sources of ignition and both the fabric and the foam cushioning of the furniture under real world conditions. Research conducted in Great Britain demonstrates that by 2007, the new British standard resulted in 37 % fewer furniture fires each year and a 64 % reduction in deaths from furniture fires.

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