WASHINGTON — The Consumer Product Safety Commission is moving ahead with a flammability standard for upholstered furniture — including potential warning labels for polyurethane foam — after a report from government scientists removed a significant hurdle. Congress had barred CPSC from acting until the National Academy of Sciences studied the safety of flame retardants in upholstered furniture fabric. The NAS report, released April 27, found that eight of the 16 chemicals it studied will not pose health risks for people and can be used immediately.
The report comes as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced legislation May 3 that would require warning labels that furniture "contains polyurethane foam and presents a severe fire hazard."
DeLauro's bill also calls for CPSC to adopt tough rules, including a requirement that PU foam be treated with fire retardants.
The NAS report seems likely to reignite a debate over how to reduce deaths related to upholstered furniture fires — NAS estimates the number of deaths at 100 annually — and what role the PU foam industry should play in prevention.
CPSC tentatively has recommended putting flame retardants just on fabric, not foams, and has not commented on whether it will require warning labels for the PU foam. CPSC staff found that treating the fabric is important, but treating foam had relatively little impact on fires, said Dale Ray, CPSC project manager for upholstered furniture.
But the National Association of State Fire Marshals wants CPSC to require PU foam warning labels, and it wants the PU treated to provide additional protection from fire. California requires that PU be treated, and several furniture manufacturers and retailers, including La-Z-Boy and Ikea, have decided to meet the California standard nationwide, according to NASFM.
DeLauro said in a news release that it is important to treat PU foam because it is highly flammable and emits toxic fumes when burned, including carbon monoxide and cyanide.
Lew Freeman, vice president of government affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington, said more regulation is not needed because fire deaths have been declining nationwide for 10 years. Fire officials argue that residents of California are one-seventh as likely to die in furniture fires because of that state's standards.
A spokeswoman for the Upholstered Furniture Action Council said upholstered furniture fires declined 70 percent between 1978 and 1996, in part because the industry attacked the leading cause, cigarette fires.
Freeman said DeLauro's bill is not likely to advance in this session of Congress because it is being introduced too late and it lacks co-sponsors on the Commerce Committee, where it must win approval.
CPSC's decision could come later this year, according to a government relations official at NASFM, which is based in West Hartford, Conn. The NAS study "takes away the one major argument of the furniture industry" for not moving forward with CPSC action, the staffer said.
Ray declined to comment on the CPSC time line other than to say it could take action this year. The agency wants to complete its own risk assessment, he said.
NAS said it intentionally overestimated possible exposure, and found eight of the chemicals safe under worst-case exposure assumptions. The $500,000 NAS report was funded by CPSC.