There have been more multi-alarm house fires in California in the past six months than in the previous two years combined, according to a recent report from KCRA in Sacramento. Given that, it’s hard to believe that the state would embrace a policy that deemphasizes fire safety.

For more than 40 years, California pursued a fire safety policy for furniture that recognized the risk presented by smoldering sources (cigarettes) and open flame sources (candles, matches and lighters). Now there has been a radical change in state policy that could result in increased fire deaths, injuries and property damage.

Recently the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) amended the pre-existing fire safety standard for upholstered furniture in response to activists who demanded that flame retardant products be removed from these products. The new state standard, which takes effect in 2015, eliminates the requirement that furniture manufacturers test their products for resistance to ignition from open flame sources.  To further discourage use of flame retardant chemicals, Senator Leno is pushing legislation (SB 1019) to require manufacturers to apply labels on any furniture treated with flame retardants to alert consumers to the presence of those chemicals. The timing is ironic given KCRA’s report that the threat of open flame fires appears to be increasing.

California’s lowering of the furniture fire safety standard runs counter to other jurisdictions that are similarly concerned about potential health and environmental impacts, but are unwilling to abandon fire safety.   For example, the United Kingdom Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the government agency responsible for regulating furniture fire safety, just issued a new report that recognized public concern about the use of flame retardant chemicals but also recognized that fire safety should not be sacrificed:  “In November 2013, California introduced a new furniture flammability standard (TB117-2013) that means its furniture will not contain FRs in the future. While BIS believes this standard offers poor fire safety compared with the FFRs[1], it is important nevertheless to note that public opinion in the USA contributed strongly to the change.”

The motivation for the change in California regulations had nothing to do with fire safety and everything to do with a sustained activist campaign to eliminate chemicals from everyday life.  With lives and homes at risk, the state needs to reconsider the decision to set aside years of fire safety research and technology development and instead send a signal to furniture companies that safe, fire resistant furniture is achievable and remains a high priority.

To return to policies that prioritize safety and product sustainability over activism, I recommend that the state consider several checks and balances.

First, duplicate the effort undertaken in the UK and let science and technology determine the methodology for fire prevention, the effectiveness of the prevention methods and address the potential health effects of specific products.  The state can guard against unintended consequences of a less protective standard — more fire related deaths, injuries and property damage — if science rather than politics determines the policy.

Second, provide meaningful information to the public about the relative risks associated with furniture fires and the various methods used to reduce fire threats.  SB 1019 could discourage furniture manufacturers from using flame retardant chemicals and appears void of any consideration of fire safety.  If a warning label is appropriate, the public deserves full disclosure of all relevant risks, not a one-sided label.

Third, fire safety should be one of the state’s highest priorities, as it was for decades, and state policies should encourage further R&D to develop more fire safe products.  Rather than heading in the direction of discouraging fire safe furniture, the state should be incentivizing material and product manufacturers to develop better products.

Every year, too many people are injured or killed in house fires, including young children and the elderly who face the highest death risk from open flame fires.  With the proper policy incentives, research and balanced consideration, we can have furniture that is both safe for public health and the environment and fire resistant.

John McCormack, retired fire scientist, is the former manager of research and development for the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. He has also served as a consultant for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance.

[1] Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations