Last year, fire scientists and fire safety experts sent several letters to Governor urging him not to take a step backward on consumer fire protection by allowing the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to adopt a new upholstered furniture standard that ignores open flame ignition sources. Unfortunately, the Governor did not intervene and the standard now in effect is devoid of any protection from real-world open-flame ignition sources. This action is not only a lost opportunity, but could well result in more furniture fires and, sadly, more injuries and deaths in the future.
During my years at the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, I advocated to maintain and strengthen the open flame resistance requirement following adoption of the original Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) in 1975. Since that time, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s latest data, furniture fires have dropped nationwide by 84 percent and deaths from these fires dropped by 67 percent. The reasons are many: fewer people smoking, increased use of smoke alarms and, importantly, the fire safety performance requirements placed on polyurethane foam and other filling materials found in most couches and chairs and on finished articles of furniture.
Despite the success of the old standard, the new TB 117 removes the foundational requirement that furniture pass an open flame test. Prospectively, it need only pass a smoldering cigarette test. Here’s the problem: ignition of an item of furniture by a small open flame source (think match, candle or lighter) typically results in much more rapid ignition than with a smoldering cigarette, unless the furniture is constructed with inherently flame resistant materials or is engineered to be flame resistant with chemical additives or protective barrier fabric materials. While there is clearly room for improvement, furniture containing the “old” CA TB 117-compliant foam does burn more slowly and is thus safer, providing valuable escape time before fire growth renders the room a threat to life.
The Bureau’s decision to ignore the flaming hazard of furniture altogether is even more bizarre considering its adamant view just a few years ago that an open flame test was crucial to a viable national furniture fire safety standard. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering a national furniture flammability standard in 2008, the California Bureau of Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation stated the following:
“The Bureau strongly believes that any national furniture flammability standard must address the typical scenario of open flame ignition in upholstered furniture…Considering the fact that many open flame furniture fires are caused by small children playing with matches or lighters, the seriousness of such hazard cannot be overstated.”
Governor Brown, you must reconsider the shortsighted decision of your administration to set an inadequate fire safety standard. Given the history of TB 117 as the de-facto national furniture flammability standard, your decision here is likely to impact the entire country. Fortunately, it’s not too late. While the new standard took effect January 1 of this year, furniture manufacturers actually have until next year to comply.
There is still time to acknowledge the need for open flame protection and return to a process that is more reflective of real-world furniture fire scenarios.
John McCormack, retired fire scientist, is formerly with the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation and currently a consultant for American Chemistry Council.