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Furniture retailers phase out of toxic flame retardant chemicals brings safer choices

– Advocates Urge Other Leading Retailers to Adopt Timelines and Policies to Eliminate Harmful Chemicals –

Several of the nation’s largest retailers have eliminated or begun phasing out furniture with chemicals known as toxic flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer and learning and developmental disabilities in children. However the pace of the phase-outs and disclosure of the contents of the furniture remains a muddle according to public health advocates, and they are urging the nation’s biggest furniture retailers to provide better disclosure.

The nation’s largest furniture retailer and manufacturer, Ashley Furniture, for example, has announced it will be phasing out such products, but declined to publicly say when. For years, public health advocates said the chemicals threatened human health and the environment, and did not provide an added fire safety benefit as claimed by the chemical industry.

Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families said:

“For years, consumers were saddled with few safe choices when they wanted to buy a couch or other foam-padded furniture. Thankfully big retailers are beginning to remove toxic flame retardants.  The nation’s top furniture retailer Ashley has recognized that these toxic flame retardant chemicals are not necessary and will be manufacturing and selling furniture products that are safer as they meet the new California flammability standards. But customers want and have a right to know what they are buying. It’s vital Ashley take the next step by announcing a clear public timeframe for phasing out these chemicals in furniture foam and fabrics.

“Eliminating toxic flame retardant chemicals makes our homes safer while improving our health. The industry is responding, but with varying degrees of success to consumers.  We urge other leading furniture retailers to adopt policies with clear timeframes to phase out these unnecessary and dangerous chemicals.”

Today the Chicago Tribune reported that major furniture retailers including Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, Williams-Sonoma (Pottery Barn, West Elm) have mostly eliminated chemicals known as toxic flame retardants from their furniture. They also reported that the Futon Shop, Scandinavian Designs and Walmart “have told vendors to stop adding flame retardants to furniture” and that Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture retailer and manufacturer in America, is “committed to designing furniture … without the use of flame retardant chemicals.”

Ashley’s announcement was triggered by a recent letter to the company from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mind the Store campaign urging the retailer to identify and phase out the use of toxic flame retardants.

The vast majority of couches and upholstered furniture across the U.S. contain high levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals. Since 1975, furniture foam sold across the U.S. has been laden with these substances to meet the standards of a California “technical bulletin” called TB117. Despite being called “flame retardants,” research by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups have found that these chemicals are not necessary to ensure that furniture is fire safe.

In daily use, the chemicals do not stay in the furniture. They migrate out of the products and collect in indoor dust where they enter people’s bodies by being inhaled, ingested and touched. Some toxic flame retardants do not break down easily, and have been found to persist and travel to waterways and ecosystems virtually everywhere. Firefighters, who already have a higher risk of certain cancers, are exposed to these harmful chemicals in a fire, and the highly toxic byproducts that result when they burn.

While TB117 only applied to California, it soon became the industry standard in all 50 states. After years of advocacy by public health groups, TB-117 was revised at the direction of California Governor Jerry Brown to allow manufacturers to phase out toxic flame retardants without compromising fire safety. The policy was renamed TB117-2013 and became mandatory as of January 1, 2015.

A 2014 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) survey of 16 major furniture stores found a wide degree of variation. Three chains – Crate & Barrel, The Futon Shop, and La-Z-Boy – have flame retardant-free furniture now available for purchase. Others said they would start offering safer alternatives, with some committing to a 2015 time frame.  Other retailers including Target, Pier 1, Restoration Hardware, American Signature, Cost Plus, Macy’s, Rooms-to-Go, and Sears did not indicate they have flame retardant free furniture available in the survey published as of September 2014.

The Mind the Store campaign is now planning on sending letters to these and other major furniture retailers urging them to also eliminate toxic flame retardants.

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