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Over the past few years, I have heard in the news about the likely dangers and ineffective but widespread use of flame retardants in furniture cushions. I'm in the market for a sofa, and I'd like to find one that is free of these chemicals.

Consumer Reports wrote, "In tests of 102 residential couches purchased in the U.S. from 1985 to 2010, scientists at Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley found that 85 percent of the couches they tested contained flame retardants."

So, clearly some sofas are made without flame retardants. But I'm having a difficult time finding sofas clearly identified as "flame-retardant free".

I contacted Pottery Barn; after much difficulty and initially contradictory claims of flame retardant usage, they finally acknowledged with certainty they add flame retardant to all of their sofas, despite some of them containing the word "organic" in the item description.

Are flame-retardant-free couches, directly labeled as such, sold in the US?

  • This is not an answer, but I'm not sure I'd trust "heard in the news" on dangers or effectiveness of flame retardants. In particular, even if there is a potential hazard from them, I'd bet quite a lot that the overall risk of having flame retardant is less than the overall risk of not having it! If you can cite a specific article that concerns you, this might be something you might like to ask about over on skeptics.stackexchange.com – Flyto Dec 14 '13 at 10:05
  • Also, that consumer report does not demonstrate that some sofas are made now without flame retardants. I don't know about the situation in the US, but in .uk flame retardants were only required relatively recently, so couches bought in 1985 would lack them and those in 2010 would all have them. – Flyto Dec 14 '13 at 10:08
  • @Flyto the Consumer Reports article is in fact about the dangers and ineffectiveness of chemical flame retardants on sofas. – glenviewjeff Dec 14 '13 at 20:08
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Short answer: Since the flammability requirements in the state of California are changing, you probably can shop for a new couch which does not have flame-retardant chemicals come next summer. Although the label TB-117-2013 on the product menas that it meets the new requirements, but it does not guarantee that the product is free of flame-retardant chemicals.

Long answer: Current regulations of flammability requirements in the state of California (4 CA ADC § 1374, CALIFORNIA CODE OF REGULATIONS/TITLE 4. BUSINESS REGULATIONS/DIVISION 3. BUREAU OF HOME FURNISHINGS/ARTICLE 13. FLAMMABILITY REGULATIONS) which originally date back to 1975 requires that:

(a) All filling materials contained in any article of upholstered furniture, and all filling materials added to reupholstered furniture, shall meet the test requirements as set forth in the State of California, Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin Number 117, entitled "Requirements, Test Procedures and Apparatus for Testing the Flame Retardance of Filling Materials Used in Upholstered Furniture," dated March 2000.

The tests require the material to be exposed for 12 seconds to a small, open flame. "[...] as a result, manufacturers throughout the nation have been adding brominated or chlorinated chemicals to the foam to slow the spread of flames."* to meet the flammability regulations requirements. Although this was not a national regulation or law, it affected the national production.+

A draft for new flammability regulations was released in February 2013 which only requires the material to be exposed to smoldering objects during the tests and not to an open flame.

Although the regulations does not ban the use of flame-retardant chemicals (which are claimed to be safe by the chemicals industry), but the laxed test requirements make it possible for the manufacturer to start making new furniture without adding the flame-retardant chemicals. These new products would be labelled as TB-117-2013.

  • If you read the article more carefully, it explains that the flame retardants are not actually required, but "[The law] doesn't require flame retardants to be used, but to meet the standard, many manufacturers added them to foam...That law, known as Technical Bulletin 117, requires polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture and children's products to withstand a small, open flame for 12 seconds. It is the only such rule in the country." – glenviewjeff Apr 16 '13 at 15:29
  • Yes. You're right. Edited the answer to cover that and so can you! – Shervin Apr 16 '13 at 17:18
  • using natural retardants close to doubles the cost of a regular couch. So that is the problem here - we have no guarantees that manufacturers will not continue to add this crap - the new label will only show the couch may have chemical fire retardants or natural ones - it won't tell you which it is - – user977 Dec 14 '13 at 1:46
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This brochure from greensciencepolicy.org provides the following guidance:

  1. Foam-Free Furniture: Polyester-, down-, or wool filled furniture is unlikely to contain added flame retardants. Furniture without filling (e.g. wood, wicker) is also a good option.

  2. Flame-Retardant-Free Furniture: More flame retardantfree options should become available to consumers in the US and Canada as manufacturers switch to the new TB117-­‐2013

These more expensive options already provide foam furniture options free of added flame retardants. Check with producers and retailers before purchasing to verify that furniture is flame retardant free:

About half of the sofas that Room and Board carry are manufactured by McCreary and are on display at their showrooms. Crate and Barrel carries a few of their couches as well. Both stores confirm they can special order McCreary sofas without flame retardant.

Most of the other sofas at this time are not on display in showrooms nationwide.

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