[Updated January 7, 2021]
Maybe you’ve heard? In residence halls across the country, there’s a debate over the furniture fire safety standards which are designed to protect human health.
In a strange and unsettling twist, for the last several decades furniture manufacturers have used highly toxic flame retardant chemicals to meet the same fire standards that are meant to protect us.
According to a 2012 study examining the effects of these flame retardant chemicals on human health from Duke University:
Small doses of a flame retardant commonly added to furniture and baby products can trigger obesity, anxiety and developmental problems
As you might expect, that’s caused concern at leading research institutions and universities like Harvardand UC Berkeley. These schools now prohibit furniture on their campus that has flame retardant chemicals.
The saga related to banning toxic flame retardants—and it is a saga—is well chronicled by The Chicago Tribune in their award-winning series Playing With Fire and in an HBO documentary called Toxic Hot Seat.
Simplifying The Fire Safety Story
So what’s the story here and what impact should this have on what kind of residence hall furniture you choose to buy? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think. So let me break it down for you.
This story has a few chapters and I’m going to briefly lead you through each one and distill it down to its essence.
Armed with this information, you can weigh the pros and cons and make your decision. Either way, I urge you to familiarize yourself with your local fire safety codes for furniture in public spaces.
And before we jump in, I should say that my own company, DCI, builds and designs furniture that is free of chemical flame retardants. We adhere to the most up-to-date flammability code, TB117-2013 (not to be confused with TB-117 or CAL-133).
Furthermore, we strongly advise all residence halls to avoid buying furniture that adheres to Cal-133 (the flammability standard which requires flame retardant chemicals). I’ll explain why below.
A Brief History of Fire Safety
Historical Context: Let’s back up to the beginning of our story. It all started way back in 1929 in Lowell, Massachusetts. To set the stage, I’m going to quote from Wikipedia.
In 1929, a cigarette-ignited fire in Lowell, Massachusetts caught the attention of U.S. Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers (D-MA); she called for the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to develop technology for “self-snubbing” cigarettes. The Boston Herald American covered the story on 31 March 1932, noting that after three years of research the NBS had developed a “self-snubbing” cigarette and had suggested that cigarette manufacturers “take up the idea.”
In 1973 the United States Congress established the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to protect the public from hazardous products. Congress excluded tobacco products from its jurisdiction while assigning it responsibility for flammable fabrics. The CPSC regulated the flammability of mattresses and worked with furniture manufacturers to establish voluntary flammability standards for upholstered furniture, although more recently those standards have come to be considered mandatory.
Cigarettes Were Causing Fires
Did you catch that slight of hand? Cigarettes were causing fires. Houses were going up in flames (Lowell was not an isolated incident). Cigarettes were the undisputed culprit.
Somebody had to take responsibility. After all, lots of people were dying.
Thanks to free market advocates and powerful lobbyists, it wasn’t going to be the most culpable party—the tobacco industry. Instead, someone got a brilliant idea and said, “Hey! Let’s blame the couches instead!”
It Took 70 Years To Hold Them Accountable
Makes sense, right? No. But there you are. That’s the ill-conceived beginning of this story and where everything goes off the tracks. Warning: things don’t really improve until about 2013.
And let’s put these smoke and mirror shenanigans in context. The University of California at Davis came out with a study in August 2000 saying:
Based on a worldwide study of smoking-related fire and disaster data, UC Davis epidemiologists show smoking is a leading cause of fires and death from fires globally, resulting in an estimated cost of nearly $7 billion in the United States and $27.2 billion worldwide in 1998.
It took over seventy years for the first state to adopt fire-safe cigarette standards as law. And not coincidentally, that would help set the stage for the passage of legislation 13 years later that finally ended the mandatory application of toxic flame retardant chemicals to our furniture.
Chapter 1. California Passes Fire Retardant Regulation
So let’s back up again. It’s the early 1970s around the time that the CPSC was redirecting fire-safety responsibility away from big tobacco to the furniture industry. The California state government passed a law saying all upholstered furniture sold in the state had to be fire retardant.
If you’re like me, it’s hard to think about the ’70s without also thinking about cigarettes. They were as ubiquitous as bell bottoms. In fact, cigarette smoking in the 20th Century peaked in 1965, when about 50% of men and 33% of women smoked.
At that time, our smoking habit was a real fire hazard and an urgent problem.
So someone had to determine what California’s new fire retardant regulation actually meant. They had to create flammability standards.
Chapter 2. TB-117 Becomes Default Flammability Standard
That responsibility fell to California’s Bureau of Home Furnishings (CBHF). They published Technical Bulletin 117 (TB-117), which became law in California in 1975. By default, TB-117 served as the national minimum standard for flammability.
Chapter 3. TB-133 Published. Requires Flame Retardant Chemicals
By 1984, the CBHF had received numerous requests from fire departments and other public and commercial institutions asking for more guidance. To address the fire issues related to furnishings in public buildings, the CBHF published TB-133 (also referred to as CAL-133, Cal TB 133, or just TB133).
This new document was used by local fire officials in buildings where they recognized the need to enforce a fire safety standard. And it’s important to realize that this only applied to public spaces in public buildings like hospital waiting areas.
Unfortunately many universities mistakenly interpreted this as a standard that also applied to their residence halls and students lounges.
But what’s the big deal about TB-133 anyways?
Here’s The Rub About TB-133
Here’s the rub of this whole thing and the turning point in the story. To meet the standards of TB-133, a lot of manufacturers had to add toxic flame retardant chemicals to their upholstery and foam.
Now there a few things of note about TB-133. It’s basically the most stringent fire standard. And from a certain point of view, TB-133 is shaping up to look like the bad guy in this story.
Unlike the other standards, CAL-133 includes a flame test that furniture makers must pass for certification. According to this standard, each line of furniture has to pass the flame test to meet CAL-133 standards.
To our chagrin, many campuses still ask us to make TB-133 compliant furniture. For clarification, this is a mistake and endangers the health of students.
Furthermore, the TB-133 standard only applies to public spaces where there are 10 or more articles of seating. Most public spaces in university residence halls don’t meet this definition of public space.
If at all possible, we encourage you to avoid TB-133 compliant furniture at all costs.
(As an aside, there is a caveat to all these standards. If you have a really smoking sprinkler system (pun intended), these requirements become moot. Your local fire marshall will let you know. This exception applies almost everywhere except for the city of Boston.)
Chapter 4. Prop-65 A Step Forward
Now back to our story. In 1986, California passed the now famous Prop-65, which banned the use of certain toxic chemicals and carcinogenic substances.
The law dealt with a lot of the toxic bad guys. And it gets even better.
Because California is the 6th largest economy on the planet at $2.46 trillion, Prop-65 had a hugely positive effect by forcing any manufacturer participating in that economy to comply.
Chapter 5. The Clash of Cal-133 and Prop-65
As it turns out, in 2011 some of the toxic chemical flame retardants spawned by CAL-133 were added to the list of Prop 65 chemicals.
Chapter 6. California Update TB-117-2013
Consequently, in 2013 California updated its original fire standards with TB-117-2013. This more appropriate fire standard accounted for the discrepancy with Prop 65.
Basically, the TB-117-2013 update ensures that you can still meet effective flammability standards without using the flame flame retardant chemicals required to meet CAL-133.
This is how Berkeley Analytical lab describes it:
Instead of an open flame test, the new standard [CAL-117-2013] provides methods for smolder resistance to cigarettes of cover fabrics, barrier materials and resilient filling materials for use in upholstered furniture. As stated by the agency, these changes provide greater fire safety protection against smoldering materials, the major ignition source, while reducing or eliminating the need by manufacturers to rely on materials treated with flame retardant chemicals of concern. Additionally, 17 categories of infant and baby products with foam cushions became exempt from the flammability requirements.
Chapter 7. California Declares No More Flame Retardant Chemicals
And finally, in the last act of this story, California passed a resolution called SB 1019 in 2015. It stipulates that details about flame retardant chemicals in upholstery materials must appear on the TB 117-2013 flammability label. This is how the label reads:
THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA HAS UPDATED THE FLAMMABILITY STANDARD AND DETERMINED THAT THE FIRE SAFETY REQUIREMENTS FOR THIS PRODUCT CAN BE MET WITHOUT ADDING FLAME RETARDANT CHEMICALS. THE STATE HAS IDENTIFIED MANY FLAME RETARDANT CHEMICALS AS BEING KNOWN TO, OR STRONGLY SUSPECTED OF, ADVERSELY IMPACTING HUMAN HEALTH OR DEVELOPMENT.
[Update 2021] Chapter 8. TB-117-2013 Becomes The U.S. National Flammability Standard
A post on the Woodworking Network website reports on new legislation that effectively douses this protracted drama. The US has finally established a sensible flammability standard:
Congress passed the COVID-19 Regulatory Relief and Work from Home Safety Act, which incorporates the Safer Occupancy Furniture Flammability Act (SOFFA) supported by several industry groups including the American Home Furnishings Alliance and Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association.
The new law instructs the Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish conformance with California TB-117-2013 as a national standard in the United States. California enacted SOFFA in 2013.
Why Should You Care?
Why should you care about all this? These details are confusing, no doubt about it. But here’s what you need to know.
First, California sets the standards for most of these things and manufacturers abide by their laws. Therefore, it’s likely that these policies apply in your own state and your district.
Second, getting furniture that meets CAL-133 standards costs about 10-15% more than furniture that meets TB-117-2013. Why? For a few reasons.
- Furniture makers have to add an additional fire barrier to the fabric and foam.
- Manufacturers have to send their furniture to a third party lab to run it through a flammability test. These costs are passed on to the consumer.
Third, a lot of people openly oppose CAL-133 for public health reasons. Boston, MA is one of the few cities which still uses the standard and even this is changing, albeit slowly.
According to Silent Spring Institute staff scientist Kathryn Rodgers:
Boston Firefighters Local 718 wants to see the fire code updated to reduce firefighters’ exposure to these chemicals. The International Association of Firefighters and Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts have all expressed their concerns about exposure to carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals.
So firefighters are against it and prestigious universities like Harvard and UC Berkeley won’t allow CAL-133 furniture into their residence halls.
Dr. Joe Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, had this to say on the issue.
When the science is this clear on the potential for harmful effects, and safe alternatives exist, it is time to take action to reduce exposure to flame retardant chemicals. This is an important, public health-promoting goal for our University.
According to Berkeley Analytical lab:
Since the change in the California home furnishing flammability standard [in 2013], many office furniture customers also are requesting furniture items without flame retardant chemicals of concern that are compatible with TB 117-2013 and not with Cal-133.
In the end, the decision of what you need to do rests with your local fire marshall. He or she has the final say over what your university has to do with respect to meeting minimum fire safety requirements. And those requirements change from campus to campus.
Your Next Steps
Obviously, your concern here is twofold:
1. How do you make sure your furniture isn’t flammable?
2. How can you prevent student exposure to toxic flame retardants?
Let me reiterate one key point here. Avoid CAL133 furniture if at all possible. The science now shows that you run the risk of exposing your residents to toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemicals by adhering to Cal133.
Yes, it’s true that Cal133 is the most rigorous fire safety standard. But the Cal117-2013 update shows that you can achieve a high level of fire safety without exposing residents to toxic chemicals.
I also recommend that you make sure you understand the policies we’ve discussed here. And more importantly, you need to make sure that your fire marshal also understands them.
As an interesting side note, the Today Show did a fascinating cover story tangentially related to these issues.
They tested two show rooms for flammability. One showroom contained modern furniture and the other contained furniture from the 1970s, built with solid wood and upholstered with natural fibers.
I’m not going to give away to punchline, but you can watch the video here to see which one burned faster.
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