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Old LabelBack in 2012, we wrote about the history of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture sold in the United States. It’s a long, sordid story, but the bottom line is that dousing cushions with pounds of chemicals is not only almost completely ineffective at preventing the spread of fire, the chemicals have been linked to adverse and serious health effects, including cancer, developmental deficits, and infertility.

For decades, consumer advocates had tried to get these dangerous chemicals removed from household products, with little success. Over the years, some of the “worst” chemicals were phased out, only to be replaced by other chemicals that were at best questionable, and at worst just as bad as their predecessors. The real problem was a California law (TB117) that required upholstered furniture to meet an open-flame test. Although this wasn’t a national standard, furniture companies implemented it across the board. Strong lobbying by the tobacco and chemical industries repeatedly blocked any real change from happening.

Then the Chicago Tribune ran a series of investigative pieces on the issue, and lawmakers started listening.

In 2013, California legislators changed TB117 to require a cigarette-smolder test instead of the harsher (and less necessary) open-flame test. The idea is that cigarette-resistant fabric on the outside of furniture is sufficient to keep the whole thing from going up in flames. Many fabrics are already smolder-resistant due to their composition or the weave of the fabric. If fabric isn’t compliant, chemicals can be added to the fabric, or a layer of another, resistant fabric could be added underneath.

Starting in 2014, companies could voluntarily meet the new standard, and starting January 1, 2015, full compliance was required. But the new California standard doesn’t outlaw fire-retardant chemicals in foam; it just makes them unnecessary. Companies can continue including the chemicals, which is especially likely to happen while they use up existing materials. That raises the obvious question: How can you tell if you’re buying furniture that includes flame retardants or not?

The mostly good news is that new labeling standards should help you out. Upholstered furniture will have one of three labels:

  • If the label says that the furniture meets Technical Bulletin 117, it meets the older standard, and would almost certainly contain fire-retardant chemicals. (The label pictured above is an example of the old label.)
  • If the label says that it meets Technical Bulletin 117-2013, it might or might not contain chemicals. (This new label means that the fabric meets the cigarette-smolder test, but could also still contain chemicals in the foam.)
  • Newest labels have a check box! These labels have a statement that says, “The upholstery materials in this product:” and then there are two other lines. One says “contain added flame retardant chemicals,” and the other says “contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.” One of those will be checked, so it will be easy to tell.

It’s important to remember that these standards apply only to upholstered furniture, not to mattresses or bedding (which are not included in TB117-2013) and not to car seats (which are covered by federal law). If you’re concerned about toxic chemicals in child restraints, you can read our take on it here, and you can check this article about “detoxing” your car seat here.