Boston should stamp out flame retardants

Update fire code to decrease use of pre-treated furniture

THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL recently heard testimony from firefighters, mothers, nurses, and others on a proposed change to the city’s fire code that would allow public buildings with sprinkler systems to use furniture that is free of flame retardant chemicals.

Boston adheres to a flammability standard, known by the shorthand “TB 133,” that requires manufacturers to apply certain chemicals to furniture destined for public spaces in the Hub.  This regulation applies to upholstered chairs and sofas in schools, hospitals, universities, theaters, libraries, and other public areas.

According to a recent Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association member survey, more than 40 percent of all the TB 133 pre-treated furniture manufactured in the United States goes to Boston. Only about 2 percent of commercial seating in North America is treated with harmful flame retardant chemicals to meet this standard.

The city’s fire code requires smoke detectors and automatic sprinkler systems in most public buildings. Combined with bans on smoking, these measures have dramatic impacts on reducing fire risk and preclude the need for chemically treated furniture. A move by Boston to adopt this new standard would bring the city in line with the rest of Massachusetts, where pre-treated furniture is required only in public buildings where there are no sprinkler systems. The new state regulations were adopted earlier this year.

Boston is one of the few municipalities in the country that enforces the flame resistant chemical standard. The Boston Fire Department is open to discussing the changes as long as they do not compromise fire safety.  Boston Firefighters Local 718 wants to see the fire code updated to reduce firefighters’ exposure to these chemicals.

Anyone who lives in, works in, or visits the city stands to benefit from the proposed change.  A well-established body of research shows that flame retardant chemicals are harmful to human health.  Because flame retardants can migrate out of furniture, people come into contact with the chemicals through the air and dust particles. Studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with cancer, thyroid disruption, low birth weight, lowered IQ, fertility problems, and many other health issues.

Firefighters are especially vulnerable to flame retardant chemicals. During a fire, massive quantities of flame retardants are released into the air and the combustible chemicals produce highly toxic gases.  These first responders have elevated rates of more than a dozen different types of cancer, including leukemia, multiple myeloma, esophageal, intestinal, testicular, and lung cancer, in comparison to the general population.

The International Association of Firefighters and Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts have all expressed their concerns about exposure to carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals.

In a study conducted by University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, researchers measured the amount of flame retardants in the blood of pregnant women and then followed the health outcomes of their children after birth.

They found that the children between the ages of five and seven whose mothers had the highest blood levels of a group of flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs had worse outcomes in attention, cognitive function, and fine motor skills than children whose mothers had the lowest PBDE blood levels. PBDE flame retardants are known to alter thyroid hormones, which are important for brain development.

Scientists at the Newton-based Silent Spring Institute, an independent research organization that studies the environment and women’s health, also concluded that flammability standards contribute to the problem. In 2008, the institute’s scientists published a study that found that California residents had twice the national average of toxic flame retardants in their blood. Flame-retardant levels in the dust of California homes were four to 10 times the levels found in homes elsewhere in the country.  Young children are disproportionately exposed to the chemicals because they spend more time on the floor and ingest more dust.

Silent Spring studied California because in 1975 the state became the first in the country to implement regulations mandating the use of flame retardant chemicals. But growing public concern over toxic chemicals prompted California officials to develop a new standard for furniture in 2013.

This standard applies to all residential furniture and public furniture in places with automatic sprinkler systems, and requires furniture fabric to withstand ignition from a cigarette (manufacturers can meet this standard without flame retardant chemicals by tightening the weave of the fabric). Thanks to California’s pioneering regulations, today consumers can buy furniture that does not contain flame-retardant chemicals.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Rodgers

Staff scientist, Silent Spring
However, the city of Boston continues to adhere to an outdated standard. Until recently, few people knew about the health risks associated with high exposure to flame retardants. Armed with this knowledge and awareness of chemical-free, fire-safety practices, Boston has an important opportunity to safeguard public health by ending the use of toxic, pre-treated furniture, where possible, in places where people work, play, and learn.

Kathryn Rodgers is a staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute who is working on flame retardant exposure studies that are scheduled for publication next year.