The flexible polyurethane foam industry is facing some of the biggest governmental challenges in its history, according to speakers at the Polyurethane Foam Association Inc. spring meeting May 6 in Washington.
* Pending furniture flammability standards from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the State of California.
* Federal and state bills to ban or severely curtail the use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, commonly used combustion-modifying additives in flexible foam.
* A public health study by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that purports to draw a relationship between public respiratory illnesses and hypothetical community exposure to diisocyanate emissions.
``We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation,'' said Jim McIntyre, longtime PFA legal counsel. ``We've always had some ongoing issues, but we find ourselves in a situation today where a lot of things are going on at the same time.''
According to McIntyre, there are four federal and nine state bills that could have a profound effect on the PU foam industry. One bill is the the American Home Fire Safety Act, which would set comprehensive fire safety standards for upholstered furniture, mattresses, bedclothes and candles. Another bill not only would phase out PBDEs, but also set labeling requirements for products containing PBDEs to ensure that they are handled carefully after they are thrown away or during recycling.
Knoxville, Tenn.-based PFA supports CPSC's development of a national flammability standard, said PFA President Vinnie Bonaddio.
``However, PFA was concerned about supporting a standard that would potentially only improve the combustion characteristics of polyurethane foam content, yet ignore the fire performance of other cushioning materials, including synthetic and natural fibrous materials,'' he said.
Various furniture organizations are working with PFA to create a recommended standard that would require all seat-cushioning materials to pass the same flammability tests, according to Bonaddio. The recommendation should be ready very shortly, which should speed the CPSC's actions and help to stop the flammability bill in Congress, he said.
Removal of PBDEs from the market is both imminent and inevitable, and there are other combustion-modifying additives the flexible foam industry can use, Bonaddio noted. But most finished products containing PBDEs still are in use, and ``how those products will be disposed of concerns the PFA,'' he said.
``Although we do not believe that many upholstered goods now are recycled after their useful life, we don't want to close the door on that possibility.''
The manufacture of bonded carpet cushioning, he added, depends on a constant supply of flexible polyurethane scrap, which anti-PBDE laws - such as one that passed in California - could endanger, Bonaddio said. McIntyre and other PFA representatives traveled to Sacramento and obtained an agreement that the California Legislature will consider excluding used and recycled materials containing PBDEs.
``This is a good recommendation and, if accepted, will help us deal with new PBDE restriction bills that have been introduced in New York, Minnesota and other states,'' he said.
Those things are minor, however, compared with the ATSDR study in North Carolina, according to Bonaddio. North Carolina is a major center for flexible foam manufacturing, and severe regulations there could be very harmful to the entire industry, he said.
When the ATSDR project began, Bonaddio said, the agency assured PFA that it would not perform community interviews and blood sampling unless paper tapes found spikes of diisocyanate emissions of more than 5 parts per billion, and the more accurate Iso-Chek instruments confirmed this.
``Paper tape monitoring was termed phase one, Iso-Chek monitoring was termed phase two, and public interviews with possible blood sampling would have been phase three,'' he said. ``[But] PFA learned that phases two and three would either be run simultaneously, or phase two may be skipped altogether. This is not good science.''
ATSDR justified its decision in that it found three spikes of diisocyanates in the Greensboro area of above 5 ppb recorded by paper tapes, he said. But paper tapes can be inaccurate and can be affected by other pollutants, including nitrous oxide, he added.
``Based on the sophisticated emissions-control technologies used by PFA manufacturing members in North Carolina, those [ATSDR] claims are in all likelihood completely false,'' he said.
If PFA doesn't act now to protect the industry's interests, the foam industry could lose not only its credibility, but also more than 4,000 jobs in North Carolina, according to Bonaddio.
``We intend to be fully cooperative with state and government agencies, but [also] to insist that confirmation tests be employed and evaluated before the public is involved.''