Image—Flickr CC: CS_McMahon

Ineffective Fire Regulation Meets Its Demise

Blogger: Jean Hansen, Sustainable Interiors Manager | San Francisco, CA, USA
February 04, 2014

How many times do we find that the strict regulations that define how we design for our clients, also affect our personal lives? One recent example comes to mind.

California’s well-intended “Open Flame Test” regulation for upholstered furniture (Technical Bulletin 117 or “TB117”), developed almost 40 years ago, has not only been proven to be ineffective in supporting fire safety, but is also linked to significant health issues.

This is a national issue, because although the regulation was developed in California , this regulation has  become the de facto standard for all of North America for upholstered furniture.

Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a new regulation titled “TB117-2013” that offers designers, end users, and consumers an option to meet fire safety for upholstered furniture and some baby products without the use of potentially toxic Flame Retardants (FRs). We now have safer, healthier product choices, using foam free of added FRs.

The key for this regulation is “choice,” as the new standard does not specifically prohibit the use of FRs in consumer products—it allows the consumer to choose. 

Here are some questions you might have about TB117-2013:

  1. Why are FRs a health hazard? Studies have found elevated rates of cancers for fire fighters associated with the exposure to FRs. They have also been linked to:
    •    Decreased fertility
    •    Decreased memory and learning
    •    Lowered IQ in children
    •    Decreased birth weight
    •    Hormone interference
    •    Decreased sperm quality
    •    Hyperactivity
    •    Cancer
    •    Diabetes
    •    Damage to immune system, liver, and kidneys
    •    Thyroid disruption
    •    Obesity
    Additionally, some FRs contaminate soil, wastewater, rivers, the ocean, fish, and marine mammals—which then contaminates the food supply.  Once these chemicals are released into the environment and into our bodies, there is no known remediation strategy.
  2. How do FRs get into our bodies?  FR chemicals leach out of the furniture foam, releasing dust into the air, a process that may accelerate as the foam ages. These chemicals get into our  bodies when we breathe or touch contaminated dust. 
  3. But don’t flame retardants provide safety for our clients and our families? The flame retardants in furniture foam to meet TB117 have not been found to prevent ignition or to reduce fire severity. FRs can actually make fires less survivable; when on fire, furniture treated with FRs when in flame gives off higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than untreated foam.  Inhalation of these toxics gases is the major cause of fire deaths.
  4. What is allowed in 2014? In 2014, the manufacturers can continue to meet TB117, which uses the outdated “Open Flame Test” or chose to meet TB117-2013, which uses the new “Smolder Standard.” Manufacturers can continue to use foam that contains flame retardants (FRs) or FR-free foam.
  5. What is allowed in 2015? In 2015, the manufacturers will be required to meet TB 117-2013, using the “Smolder Standard” exclusively, but since the regulation does not prohibit the use of flame retardant chemicals, manufacturers can still use the harmful chemicals unless otherwise specified.
  6. What about my existing furniture at home? The majority of the FRs in sofas are in the foam seat cushions. If you suspect your furniture may contain FRs, you can have the foam tested. If the foam tests positive, a reupholstery shop can replace it with FR-free foam. 

I’m proud to announce the Center for Environmental Health received a large grant from the HDR Foundation to get the word out to “purchasers” about this new regulation. They are developing easy-to-use tools that designers, our clients, and we personally can use to learn about product specifications and determine the availability of purchasing options. If we inform suppliers that we want FR-free products, we can pivot the market away from the use of FRs.

That’s why we need you! Designers and consumers can make a difference RIGHT NOW by specifying furniture to meet TB 117-2013 without the use of FR chemicals. By informing our clients and families about this new opportunity for the specification and/or purchase of FR-free upholstered products, we provide a powerful opportunity for our voices to contribute to market transformation; a shift to a healthier environment for everyone. 

Together, we can make the difference and change the paradigm for human and environmental health. Let’s do it now!

For more information, check out

Image—Flickr CC: CS_McMahon

Reader Comments (7)

I have a question. As a consumer, how can I learn which products follow TB117-2013 and which follow TB117? Will vendors provide this information, or is there a place online I can do my research?

Great blog entry, Jean! Thanks for the article. I'm going to work at getting this one out via social media.

- Jeffery 


You will want to look for furniture with tags that read that the furniture met TB 117-2013 in 2014 (not TB 117) AND you will also have  to ask whether the furniture or baby product has any flame retardants in the foam. In 2015 the manufacturers will be required to meet TB 117-2013 (not TB 117 any longer), but they will have the option to keep the flame retardants (FRs) in the foam. You will have to ask the retailer to verify that the manufacturer of the product(s) have not opted to include FRs in the foam. Another reason to support the call for transparency in product content! (see Robert Phinney's last blog on the HPD.) If they do include FRs in the foam, and you can delay your purchase, you could special order furniture to be made with FR-free foam.

They have not made this easy for the consumer (or designer). But at least we have the option, which we did not previously.

Our hope is that as this becomes more standard in the market, and with our voices being heard loud and clear, that the manufacturers will make the furniture without the FRs in the foam. Many have already committed to doing so. The major foam pourer in the U.S. has committed to making FR-free foam by April 1st this year. (great for re-upholsterers and furniture manufacturers) IKEA is all over this - it makes sense for them for their employees health, their sub-suppliers health and future litigation possibly. And hopefully many retailers will feel the same way!

You can find other that have also committed to being FR-free here (the exact link will not work with our spam feature - so go to the info page for consumers on FR-free furniture:

I might have one more source - but cannot find right now...will post later when I find it.

And for more info:

Ditto to above - spam feature does not let me link to PDF directly - but CEH has lots of fact sheets and helpful info.

Hope this is helpful! Jean

Thanks Jeffery! Glad you found it helpful!

Casey and others:

I have more info - but it all gets caught up in a spam filter! so email me at and I can send to you.


Jean, what a great write-up. A very concise summary of the high level issues surrounding flame retardants in our furniture. I know this is going to be my "go to" post for those (for myself and others) that have questions on the topic. Thank you!

It would be truly helpful to install the fire extinguishers Ireland to avoid facing any major fire outbreak. 

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