It’s Fire Prevention Week, which means we should breathe a sigh of thanks for flame-retardant furniture, right? Actually, breathing near said furniture might not be such a good idea.

It all started back in 1975 when California passed a law (TB 117) requiring that the foam inside upholstered furniture be resistant to an open flame, such as a candle. Rather than make 2 versions of every model, large manufacturers instead built all of their furniture to comply with the California law. And that means over 80 percent of furniture sold in the U.S. contains flame retardants.

The BPDE controversy

For many years, the flame retardants most commonly used in furniture were a class of chemicals called BPDEs. Then, these chemicals began showing up in women’s blood and breast milk, raising concern because they’re said to cause thyroid problems (which can affect fetal development). In 2004, BPDEs were banned in California.

Recent comparisons of blood samples taken from San Francisco women in 2008-2009 vs. another group in 2011-2012 showed that the level of chemicals had dropped by more than half, which researchers believe is a sign the ban is working.

But, with the ban in place, furniture makers had to switch other chemicals in order to stay compliant with TB 117. Some scientists now claim that these chemicals are also a safety hazard.

Do flame retardants work?

Yes and no. It takes up to 2 pounds of chemicals to make a sofa flame resistant, and even then the chemicals may do little to reduce the risk of fire. According to flammability scientist Donald Lucas of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, most fires start on the fabric of the furniture, not the foam. Once that fire reaches the foam, it’s usually too big for the fire retardant to stop.

So should we toss our comfy couches and learn to love our ladder-backed chairs?

New flammability standards on the way

A new regulation may soon make the flame-resistant foam law obsolete. California governor Jerry Brown has ordered a new flammability standard that would require furniture to pass a smolder-only test rather than an open-flame test. In a 2008 report, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said 90 percent of furniture on the market met the industry’s current smoldering standard, and smolder-resistant fabrics don’t usually need to be treated with fire retardants.

Of course, there are 2 sides to this cushion debate. Some safety advocates feel it’s a mistake to move away from open-flame testing. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that upholstered furniture played a role in 24 percent of home fire deaths in recent years and thinks fire safety regulations “must address the full spectrum of major fire scenarios.” NFPA is considering developing its own open-flame test.

Other groups want to see national regulations put in place. Earlier this year, the CPSC said it’s committed to creating a national flammability standard for furniture that doesn’t require the use of hazardous chemicals.

The pros and cons of flame retardant furniture

Personally, I’d rather not be engulfed by toxins every time I use my couch (or my office chair, for that matter). But then again, I’d also rather not be immediately engulfed in flames if my couch ever came in contact with a candle. It’s clearly not an easy problem to solve. Tell us where you stand on this issue.

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.