Chemical Insights

Balancing the Flammability and Chemical Safety Risks of Consumer Products

Underwriters Laboratories studies ways to reduce flammability and chemical toxicity hazards without sacrificing one aspect of safety for another.
Furniture testing

Flammability and Human Health — A Balancing Act

Flammable furniture is a risk faced by nearly every homeowner. In the United States, 610 civilian deaths per year can be attributed to fires that start with upholstered furniture, such as sofas. Between 2006 and 2010, furniture fires accounted for one in four home fire deaths. Older adults and children, who take longer to escape from buildings, are especially vulnerable. 

Traditionally, manufacturers have tried to control flammability by adding certain chemical flame retardants to materials used for making furniture and other consumer products. However, health scientists have raised concern that human exposure to chemical flame retardants can be linked to serious health concerns such as diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, reproductive health effects, cancer and alteration in thyroid function. Tests are finding these chemicals in the bodies of adults and children, as well as in the natural environment. 

Addressing the Risks Through Regulation

Regulatory changes to counter the risks of flame retardant exposure have begun. California’s revision to its Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) removes the requirement for furniture manufacturers to make their products resistant to open flames. Products sold in California now must be resistant to smoldering cigarettes to be in compliance, which is a less stringent requirement and does not require the use of flame retardants.

As safety risks continue to be debated, an ongoing study led by Chemical Insights seeks to develop scientific research data for evaluating and harmonizing the risks of flammability with exposure to chemical flame retardants. 

Enabling Action on Both Furniture Flammability and Chemical Safety

As market demand continues to grow for consumer-safe products, health science is demonstrating that certain chemical flame retardants have the potential for adverse health impacts, including cancer, infertility, developmental disorders and other abnormalities such as early-onset puberty. 

Whether there are alternative technologies that can balance the risks of both furniture flammability and chemical hazards remains an important question for study. Underwriters Laboratories' ongoing research and related efforts will help furniture industry stakeholders—including furniture manufacturers, policymakers and consumers—take important steps toward managing this important and multifaceted human safety problem.

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Relevant Resources

RESOURCE #1: Proceedings of the Furniture Flammability and Human Health Summit held May 20-22, 2014

RESOURCE #2: Executive Summary - Chemical Exposure in Everyday Consumer Products including Furniture and Electronics

RESOURCE #3: Research Report Chemical Exposure and Flammability Study on Upholstered Furniture from the United States and the United Kingdom

RESOURCE #4: Indoor Air 2016 Chemical Exposures Related to Upholstered Furniture and Other Consumer Products

RESOURCE #5: Furniture Experimental Outline

Fast Facts

  • While furniture flammability remains a concern, recognition of health and environmental hazards associated with certain flame retardants has grown.

  • Alternative manufacturing techniques without flame retardants and/or the use of safer chemical formulations may reduce exposure to chemicals while maintaining fire protection.

  • This research aims to develop protocols for assessing exposure by humans to flame retardants and other chemicals during typical consumer product use.