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Offices Pledge They’ll Buy Chemical-Free Furniture

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Photo: Craig Rose

What do Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, Staples and the San Francisco Department of Environment have in common? All four appear on a list of corporate and government entities that pledged to stop purchasing furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH), the organization behind the pledge, hopes to steer business away from furniture containing flame retardants, which have been linked to a range of health risks. All the offices on the list spend a combined $520 million on furniture every year.

The pledge coincides with new state legislation that will require manufacturers to attach labels to furniture treated with flame retardants. In September Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1019, which takes effect January 1, 2015.

Treating furniture with flame-retardant chemicals used to be standard procedure for meeting California’s furniture flammability code, known as Technical Bulletin 117.

“For a long time government regulations were promoting the use of these chemicals,” Charles Margulis of CEH tells Capital & Main. However, concerns about the unintended side effects of the flame retardants have made the chemicals more controversial. (See Gary Cohn’s coverage in Capital & Main.) California has recently revised TB 117 to make it easier for manufacturers to comply without using such chemicals.

“There are a lot of different health issues related to flame retardants,” says Jean Hansen, the Sustainable Interiors Manager of HDR Architecture, a large design firm that backs the pledge and assisted CEH by conducting surveys to find flame-retardant-free brands. “Flame retardants don’t stay put in the furniture or other products they are added to.” According to Hansen people can become exposed to carcinogens and other health hazards when these chemicals seep out of furniture and into the surrounding environment.

Critics of flame-retardant chemicals warn that they can pose an even greater risk when they are burned in a fire.

“The toxic gases that are released make fires much less survivable for people and are very toxic for the firefighters,” says Hansen. She claims many firefighters are experiencing “really rare forms of cancer” as a result of exposure to fumes from burning flame-retardant furniture.

Doubts about the effectiveness of flame retardants are also fueling pushback against the chemicals. “One of the really important things to remember is that the flame retardants are not giving us a level of protection, so that we need to seriously consider keeping them in the furniture,” Hansen says.

Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president of Employee Safety, Health and Wellness, as well as the health care network’s Environmental Stewardship Officer, says the health risks associated with flame retardant chemicals, and “evidence that the chemicals don’t provide the kind of fire safety that people had originally intended,” prompted her organization to take the pledge. “The change in the requirements in California doesn’t create a chemical ban,” Gerwig also points out. Because flame-retardant chemicals are still legal, she believes that “the voice of the purchaser” will be necessary to steer market demand toward safer alternatives.

Judy Levin, CEH’s Pollution Prevention Director, echoes Gerwig’s sentiments about the importance of purchasers in the move away from flame retardants. “Manufacturers want to respond to their customers’ demands. We wanted businesses to know that if they made the switch to nonflame-retardant products, that there would be a market,” Levin says about CEH’s reasons for drafting the pledge. Levin also praises SB 1019’s requirement that flame-retardant furniture carry labels. “This shouldn’t be a secret for consumers,” she says.

While much of the upholstered furniture still in use today contains flame retardants, experts see the market for retardant-free furniture and recent consumer protections as major steps toward a safer future. Hansen called the transition away from flame retardants “a huge boon to human and environmental health,” while Margulis notes, “It’s clear there is a major shift out there.”

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