Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on July 2, 2018.

Health vs. Safety?

Why banning certain chemical flame retardants in upholstered furniture for health reasons creates a fire safety issue—and why home fire sprinklers are the solution

For years, manufacturers have added chemical flame retardants to upholstered furniture and other products to improve fire safety. Health experts, however, have become increasingly alarmed by the growing body of research that links some of these chemicals to cancer, as well as to the disruption of a range of human body systems. A petition moved forward by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2017 cites these concerns in seeking to ban a large class of these chemicals from many consumer products, including upholstered furniture.

As the pressure to ban these substances mounts, the search for a path that won’t compromise fire safety or health should lead policymakers straight to an existing, toxin-free solution—home fire sprinklers.

In the push to see chemical flame retardants banned, many advocates argue that the chemicals’ fire safety benefits are far outstripped by their detrimental impact on human health. But the prominent role of upholstered furniture in fire fatalities, which NFPA statistics show are involved in about 18 percent of all home fire civilian deaths, argues for caution. According to NFPA statistics, the average number of yearly fire deaths in the U.S. in fires where upholstered furniture was the first item ignited fell from 1,220 during the period 1980–1984 to 480 during 2006–2010, a 61 percent decline. Multiple factors may be at work to explain this drop, but it is possible that flame retardants played a role. If policymakers move away from chemical flame retardants, the problem of fire safety of upholstered furniture cannot simply be ignored.

And it isn’t just about furniture. Overall, today’s homes burn much faster than those built just 20 years ago. In a residential fire, typical modern features such as large open floor plans and unprotected lightweight construction methods can cause newer homes to reach structural failure 30 to 65 percent faster than a home constructed with methods in use several decades ago, according to reports from UL, the National Research Council of Canada, and the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Combined with the faster burn times of furnishings made from synthetic material such as foam cushion couches and plastics, deadly conditions can develop in less than three minutes—less time than it takes for emergency responders to arrive and often less time than it takes to evacuate.

Fire sprinklers buy time and save lives. Fire sprinklers activate within 90 seconds of the start of a fire to contain it and allow occupants to escape. The death rate in home fires where fire sprinklers are present is 80 percent lower than in homes where they are not present. Sprinklers also provide a health and safety benefit to firefighters, minimizing their exposure to fires and the toxic smoke and gases those fires produce.

However, while more than 13 states have moved ahead with measures to ban chemical flame retardants, only two of those states, California and Maryland, require residential construction that meets current standards that include fire sprinklers. Nowhere else do statewide directives exist to follow the sprinkler requirement, meaning that the vast majority of the country’s new single-family homes are built without fire sprinklers.

As policymakers contend with the health ramifications of the flame retardant chemical debate, they cannot lose sight of the very real home fire problem. The CPSC should of course act to protect the health of consumers, but in so doing should also strongly encourage states and other jurisdictions to adopt current building codes that require home fire sprinklers. The CPSC should also continue pursuing specific strategies for upholstered furniture, including better barrier materials and other nontoxic fire safety measures.

All policymakers must be champions of consumer health as well as consumer safety. Together, we can alleviate the health risks without compromising fire safety.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Policy Institute. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler