Topic:
CONSUMER PROTECTION;
Location:
CONSUMER PROTECTION;
Scope:
Federal laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report


December 15, 1999

 

99-R-1217

FLAME RETARDANT UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE

 
 

By: Daniel Duffy, Principal Analyst

You asked for background material on flame retardant upholstered furniture and particularly wanted to know if any other state prohibits selling upholstered furniture that is not flame retardant.

Background materials are enclosed.

SUMMARY

Furniture can be made flame-retardant to reduce the likelihood of ignition from a cigarette or an open flame. According to the National Fire Protection Association, upholstered chairs and sofas were, on average, the first articles to ignite in 13,900 homes from 1992 to 1998.

California is the only state that has a flame-retardant standard for upholstered furniture. It requires furniture components to resist ignition from an open flame.

The Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC) has established a voluntary standard. UFAC is an association of manufacturers, retailers, and suppliers.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission started to adopt regulations requiring upholstered furniture fabric to have a flame-retardant backcoating. The regulation-making process was suspended following congressional action.

FIRES

A National Fire Protection Association report issued in June 1999 states that upholstered chairs and sofas first ignited in 13,900 homes per year from 1992 to 1998. The fires resulted in 653 civilian deaths and $228.3 million in direct property damage each year. Manufactured fabrics and cotton or rayon fabrics were involved in nearly 70% of these fires. The number of fires and civilian deaths and injuries declined each year.

A table prepared by California's Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation shows the civilian deaths occurring in residences in California and the entire United States from 1982 to 1994 in fires where upholstered furniture was the first item to ignite. Based on the table, the bureau concludes that the death rate in California has dropped by a larger percentage during this period due to the existence of the California flammability standard and other factors. California's population is about 10% of the national population, but the number of people who died in these types of fires is was only 1.53% in 1994, the most recent year for which data is available.

CALIFORNIA'S STANDARD

Regulations adopted under California's Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation Act establish furniture flammability standards (Cal. Code Regs. T.4, 1370 to 1386.6). They authorize three technical bulletins for upholstered furniture. Technical Bulletin 116 is a voluntary cigarette-ignition standard for finished articles. If articles of furniture comply with the standard, they may bear a specific Flammability Label. Technical Bulletin 117 is a mandatory standard for filling materials and fabrics used to make upholstered furniture. Testing is not required, but it may be necessary to ensure compliance. The standards in this bulletin apply to the components of furniture and not to the complete article. Certain articles, like outdoor furniture, are exempt. Technical Bulletin 133 establishes a mandatory, full-scale, open-flame test standard for finished furniture to be used in places of public occupancy.

UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE ACTION COUNCIL

UFAC was formed to conduct research into more cigarette-resistant upholstering methods and ways to encourage voluntary compliance. Its program guide states that furniture flammability became a national issue in 1967 when the scope of the federal Flammable Fabrics Act was extended to include, among other things, interior furnishings. The Department of Commerce began regulation-making in 1972 when it published a notice in the Federal Register. The task was passed to the Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was established in 1973. It decided in 1979 to defer regulation and instead monitor the progress of the UFAC voluntary program.

The UFAC program became operational in 1979. UFAC reports that 91% of the United States furniture market complies with its standard.

The program has four parts: fabric classification, construction criteria, hangtag labeling, and compliance verification. Fabrics are classified into two groups according to their propensity to ignite when exposed to a burning cigarette. There are six construction criteria. All six apply to both types of fabrics; the fifth applies just to one type. The hangtag identifies furniture meeting the UFAC standard. Among the compliance measures, UFAC requires manufacturers to send small samples of complying materials to an independent laboratory for testing.

CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION

The CPSC considered mandatory backcoatings on furniture fabric. Furniture manufacturers objected to the proposal, saying that it would increase costs, reduce furniture value, and had not been thoroughly tested. In October 1998, a congressional appropriation act required the CPSC to hire the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the effects of flame-retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture. The NAS must report by January 15, 2000. Once the NAS review is complete, the General Accounting Office (GAO) must review the process the CPSC has been using to develop the standard. The CPSC must consider the GAO report before it adopts a rule (P.L. 105-276, 423).

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