Part 1: Safer Furniture, Safer Buildings: Flame Retardants and our Environment

Jan. 14, 2015

Designers, end users, building owners, and consumers need to know there are new options for healthier interior products. It is now possible to meet the most widely used furniture flammability standard without adding toxic flame retardant chemicals.

In 1975, California adopted a furniture flammability standard, Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), that promoted the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in furniture. Ultimately this led producers nationwide to use these chemicals in virtually all upholstered furniture.

Halogenated and phosphate flame retardants are associated with a wide range of adverse health effects in animals and humans[1],[2].  Exposure to flame retardants is particularly harmful to pregnant women, infants, children, those in low-income communities, and fire victims and firefighters[3],[4],[5],[6].

Flame retardants are common in many architectural materials, from upholstery to insulation, where the chemicals are expected to delay ignition and slow the spread of fire. Unfortunately, they have not been shown to provide a significant fire safety benefit[7],[8].

In addition, the science shows that flame retardants can escape from furniture, collecting in dust and contaminating indoor environments[9]. Studies have found these harmful chemicals in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested, with some of the highest levels found in children[10]. In addition, they are also persistent – neither our bodies nor our natural environment is able to break them down. As a result, they are found in air, water currents, and in the food chain[11] around the globe[12].

In 2013, California’s Governor Brown ordered state regulators to recommend changes to the furniture flammability standard. The approved update, Technical Bulletin 117-2013, went into effect January 1, 2014, with mandatory compliance by January 1, 2015.

The new regulation will increase fire safety and protect public health without the need for added flame retardant chemicals. TB 117-2013 addresses the major cause of fires—smoldering cigarettes on fabric. It is important to understand that the regulation does not ban the use of toxic flame retardants.  Purchasers and specifiers must demand “flame retardant free” products.

TB 117-2013 will likely be adopted by most producers nationwide (as the former standard was). Also in 2015, California law will mandate labeling of furniture to disclose whether or not the product contains flame retardant chemicals.  Again, it is likely that many manufacturers will label their products nationwide. Together, these new regulations will finally provide purchasers and specifiers the tools necessary for fire safety without toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals.

On December 11, the authors explored health issues of flame retardants at the Building Health Forum, a first-of-its-kind event from USGBC-Northern California that analyzed issues of healthy building and communities, and reframed green building as a public health issue. The upcoming second part of this article will draw from the panel discussion, addressing harmful flame retardants in other areas of our environment, via actions to take now and planning for the future of fire safety.

Arlene Blum, PhD

Chemist and mountaineer, Arlene is also executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. The Institute works to implement and support chemical policies protecting human health and the global environment. This work has contributed to stopping the use of tens of millions of pounds of toxic flame retardants. Blum’s many awards include being named one of 100 “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet” (National Women’s History Project).

Suzanne Drake

Suzanne is an interior designer with Perkins+Will, and co-chairs the firm-wide Healthy Materials Task Force. Her career has focused on commercial interiors, specializing in creating healthy environments and green interiors. She draws on nearly two decades of supporting client initiatives and environmental goals. Her book EcoSoul: Save the Planet and Yourself by ReThinking your Everyday Habits was published in 2013.

Jean Hansen

With over 30 years of experience in sustainable design, planning, and interior design, Jean is responsible for advancing HDR’s sustainability initiatives globally in project and research work for healthcare and institutional environments. She has worked on the development of many nationally recognized sustainable resources, some of which include the USGBC’s LEED Healthcare rating system, Green Guide for Health Care, BIFMA’s level, and more recently, the Health Product Declaration (HPD).

Judy Levine

Judy leads the Center for Environmental Health’s flame retardant campaign.  She works closely with large purchasers on how to use their purchasing power to move the market towards safer products. Judy has developed a series of resources for purchasers including purchasing guides for flame retardant-free products, model procurement language, specification guidelines, and letters for suppliers.  Most recently, Judy helped author a flame retardant disclosure bill in California.

[1] Kim, Y. R.; Harden, F. A.; Toms, L.-M. L.; Norman, R. E. “Health consequences of exposure to brominated flame retardants: A systematic review.” Chemosphere 2014, 106, 1–19.

Adverse health effects include endocrine and thyroid disruption, immune toxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function.

[2] Wei G-L, Li D-Q, Zhuo M-N, Liao Y-S, Xie Z-Y, Guo T-L, et al. Organophosphorus flame retardants and plasticizers: Sources, occurrence, toxicity and human exposure. Environmental Pollution. 2014 Oct 4;196C:29–46.

[3] Eskenazi B, Chevrier J, Rauch SA, Kogut K, Harley KG, Johnson C, et al. In Utero and Childhood Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Exposures and Neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS Study. Environmental Health Perspectives [Internet]. 2012; (November).

Available from:

[4] Roze E, Meijer L, Bakker A, Van Braeckel KNJA, Sauer PJJ, Bos AF. Prenatal exposure to 
organohalogens, including brominated flame retardants, influences motor, cognitive, and behavioral performance at school age. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2009 Dec;117(12):1953–8.

[5] Zota AR, Adamkiewicz G, Morello-Frosch RA. Are PBDEs an environmental equity concern? 
Exposure disparities by socioeconomic status. Environmental Science & Technology. 2010 

[6] Shaw SD, Berger ML, Harris JH, Yun SH, Wu Q, Liao C, et al. Persistent organic pollutants including polychlorinated and polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans in firefighters from Northern California. Chemosphere. 2013 Jun;91(10):1386–94.


[8] Shaw SD, Blum A, Weber R, Kannan K, Rich D, Lucas D, et al. Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks? Reviews on Environmental Health. 2010;25(4):261–305.

[9] Stapleton HM, Eagle S, Sjödin A, Webster TF. Serum PBDEs in a North Carolina Toddler Cohort: 
Associations with Handwipes, House Dust, and Socioeconomic Variables. Environmental Health Perspectives [Internet]. 2012 May;120(7). Available from:

[10] Lunder S, Hovander L, Athanassiadis I, Bergman A. Significantly higher polybrominated diphenyl ether levels in young U.S. children than in their mothers. Environmental Science & Technology. 2010 Jul;44(13):5256–62.

[11] De Wit, C. A.; Herzke, D.; Vorkamp, K. “Brominated flame retardants in the Arctic environment--trends and new candidates.” Sci. Total Environ. 2010, 408, 2885–2918.

[12] Stubbings WA, Harrad S. Extent and mechanisms of brominated flame retardant emissions from waste soft furnishings and fabrics: A critical review. Environment International. 2014 Oct;71:164–75.

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