In a move that could affect consumers nationwide, California officials on Friday unveiled plans to scrap an obscure 1975 rule that led to the buildup of toxic flame retardants in sofas, loveseats and upholstered chairs in millions of American homes.
The proposed changes, scheduled to be adopted officially this year, mean the foam cushioning in furniture and baby products soon might be free of flame retardants, which are linked to cancer, developmental problems and impaired fertility. The new rule instead would require upholstery fabric to resist smoldering cigarettes -- the biggest cause of furniture fires.
Furniture makers have said they can meet that standard without adding chemical flame retardants to foam or fabric.
California announced last year that it would overhaul its 38-year-old flammability rule after a Chicago Tribune investigation documented how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive, decades-long campaign to promote the use of flame retardants, even though government and independent research shows the chemicals don't provide meaningful protection from furniture fires.
"Everybody will be healthier if we can have increased fire safety without toxic flame retardants," said Arlene Blum, a University of California at Berkeley chemist who has drawn attention to the hazards.
Under the current rule, known as Technical Bulletin 117, foam cushioning must withstand a candle-like flame for 12 seconds, a standard that many manufacturers meet by adding flame retardants to products sold across the country. Gov. Jerry Brown called for a sweeping overhaul last year after the chemical industry thwarted multiple attempts by California lawmakers and health ad
vocates to change the rule with legislation.
"The 'Cal 117' was the industry-standard spec that allowed foam manufacturers to pass a burn test," said Charles Molyneaux, owner of Manatee County-based Action Upholstery Supply, a private wholesale distributor that has "400 customers from Manatee to Collier counties" in the automotive, commercial, furniture, marine and drapery industries.
In business since 1987, Action Supply has grown into one of the Manatee-Sarasota region's largest upholstery wholesale distributors and has 11 employees. Molyneaux said he isn't too worried about the change in California's flammability standards, since Action is "only a wholesale distribution warehouse," not a manufacturer.
"It's probably legal overkill," he added, saying he looks to the Industrial Fabrics Association International, an industry group, for advice on chemical, flammability and other technical specifications. "But I'll definitely look into it."
When asked whether fire or chemicals posed the greater threat to consumers, Molyneaux said, "Probably the chemicals."
"Bedding, however, may be going in the other direction," he added, "with manufacturers having to make a full-sized prototype for burn testing."
When lawmakers in recent years considered eliminating the Cal 117 candle test, the chemical industry's star witness, burn surgeon David Heimbach, testified about babies burning to death in fires started by candles.
But the Chicago Tribune series proved that the babies he described didn't exist.
The newspaper also documented that the group sponsoring Heimbach -- the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute -- actually was a front group for the largest manufacturers of flame retardants. The industry has since shut down that group.
Before the proposed rule becomes final, industry officials and other interested parties will have a chance to weigh in and potentially challenge the new tests, making it unlikely that a standard will take effect before fall.
-- Herald senior business reporter Stephen Frater contributed to this report.