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Doing Away with Government Flammability Standards

During the past several years, there’s been much hype in the news alleging that flame retardant chemicals used on upholstered furniture pose unacceptable health risks. With these alarmist claims abounding, some green minded individuals complain that they unknowingly purchased couches that contain these chemicals because furniture manufacturers apply them to meet government flammability standards. To address this concern, activist groups advocate banning a wide number of chemical flame retardants. While I don’t buy their claims about these chemicals being dangerous and certainly oppose bans, no one should be essentially forced into buying products that contain them.

Accordingly, in my recently released paper on the topic, I make a bold call for the elimination of government flammability standards for furniture and other consumer products. This may sound extreme to some, but it’s actually a far more balanced and reasonable approach than is banning valuable flame retardant technologies. Shifting to voluntary flammability standards would actually be safer and meet consumer demands far better. In a nut shell, a private system would improve the situation in three key ways. It would:

  1. Reduce the destructive impact of politics on flammability standard setting;
  2. Better serve multiple consumer demands; and
  3. Allow the fire safety experts to more quickly adjust standards to meet changing conditions and improving science.

On the first point, it is clear that politics, not science, is driving this debate leading to a host of bad policy decisions. For example, California regulators changed the state’s flammability standard in 2013 in response to activist hype about the risks of chemicals used to meet the standard. This was clearly a politically driven decision. California Governor Jerry Brown had ordered state regulators to revise the standard, citing an Environmental Working Group (EWG) “study” alleging health risks. But the change may well undermine safety according to the National Fire Protection Association (see the article in the NFPA Journal for details). However, the revised allows manufacturers to meet the standard without applying flame retardants, making it possible for green groups to find “flame-retardant-free couches.”

Unfortunately, greens are not satisfied with allowing manufacturers to offer “flame retardant free couches.” Now they are taking their effort to the next level, calling for bans so that people who want chemically treated couches can’t get them. In particular, a group of activists have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all flame retardants that fall within the category of chemicals collectively referred to as “organohalogens.” Specifically, the petition asks the CPSC to ban the use of organohalogen flame retardant products in upholstered furniture sold for home use in mattresses, mattress pads, and in the plastic casing of all electronic devices.

If the petition is accepted many very useful products could disappear from the market place because of activist hype (if you want details about the science, you can read my paper). The result could be higher fire fatalities because manufacturers may resort to inferior products or none at all.

On the second point, giving consumers choice will allow greens to get their “flame retardant free-furniture,” without taking away the rights of others (like me) to buy products with chemicals applied to reduce fire risks.

Enhanced consumer choice could be achieved if regulators allowed furniture manufacturers to apply any standard that meets both the specifications of their particular products and consumer demands. There are already multiple standard-setting organizations that have flammability standards. Organizations include ASTM International, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the National Fire Protection Association, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and others. 

In this situation, some furniture companies might partner with the NFPA or UL and advertise the fact that they meet that organization’s high flammability standards by labeling products accordingly. Many consumers who want flame retardant furniture likely would choose such products based on the reputation of the NFPA, UL, or other standard-setting organization. Other manufactures could market to consumers who desire a different standard or no flame retardants at all. In this process, flame retardant chemical manufactures would need to demonstrate the value of their products in the marketplace rather than lobby government to mandate markets for them by flammability standards that can only be met with the application of chemicals.

Such voluntary approaches work well for other consumer products. For example, some shoppers prefer organic food, while others choose conventional produce, and thus, there are robust markets for both. There is little reason to believe that we cannot have similar choices for products with and without flame retardant chemicals.

Finally, on the third point, government standards tend to be too rigid, hard to change, and, as noted, are governed by politics rather that consumer demand and good science. Government regulations also demand a one-size-fits-all approach, unlike multiple competing standards, which can be easily adjusted to better apply improvements in fire science and to better meet consumer demand.

A private, voluntary system would allow standards to evolve and change with the development of new technologies and to address market changes. You do not need to be a fire engineer to understand that a product’s suitability for reducing fire risks depends on a wide range of factors, such as the source of a fire (e.g., from an open flame candle, cigarette, electrical source, or cooking-related grease fire), the materials being burned, and the kinds and amounts of flame retardants involved. Approaches to reducing fire risks need to change as both scientific understanding and technologies evolve.

For example, changes in personal habits (such as less smoking), new electronics, and different furniture finishes all have impacts that ridged government regulations cannot adequately address. These are issues that fire experts, standard-setting organizations, flame retardant producers, and furniture manufactures need the freedom and flexibility to sort out. A voluntary, flexible market-based system will allow standard-setting organizations and furniture manufactures to adjust standards as knowledge evolves, and provide the chemical and non-chemical products and methods used to meet such standards.

Moreover, a voluntary system will allow manufacturers to select different flammability standards for various products based on what works best for the materials they use, which cannot happen when regulators select a single set of standards for a broad category of goods.

These considerations demonstrate that my position really isn’t so extreme. In fact, moving this issue outside the political realm would eliminate the need for the truly extremist and dangerous trend toward banning life-saving technologies.