PU Magazine editorial on changes to the Cal-117 flammability standard

The following editorial by Denny Spicher appears in PU Magazine’s Oct-Nov 2014 issue:

FRankly baffling… 

       Over the past year, the flexible PU foam and furniture industries have struggled to make sense of California’s relatively rapid 2013 change to the Cal-117 flammability standard (the old Cal-117 had been in place for 38 years). The new Cal-117-2013 removed the open flame testing requirement in favor of a smoulder-only test, in a move to eliminate the need for flame retardants and safeguard public health against these nasty chemicals. Taking a page from Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, albeit in the opposite direction, California Governor Jerry Brown rammed through these changes, assisted by such undeniable FR experts as the Chicago Tribune, HBO, TV’s Dr. Oz and talk show host Katie Couric. While we all can applaud efforts to reduce unnecessary human exposure to chemicals, the new Cal-117-2013 unfortunately ignores and abandons the future victims of open-flame ignition fires, generally estimated to be the cause of 15% of fire deaths. And while a barrier fabric over foam may be effective in a glowing cigarette smoulder test, there are few if any barrier fabrics that will stand up against a concentrated open flame source; once the open flame hits the non-flame retardant foam underneath, it’s game over.

Furniture sold in California will now also have to carry a label indicating if the product contains flame retardant, presumably to allow the consumer to make an informed decision. But as we all know, the actual outcome will be the demise of almost all flame-retardant containing furniture not just in California, but likely everywhere the Cal-117-2013 test is used. Can anyone convince their spouse to let their child cavort on a “flame retardant saturated” piece of furniture? I certainly don’t have such persuasive skills. Sadly, the new Cal-117-2013 test ignores the fact that the industry possesses the technology to modify the PU polymer to enhance ignition resistance, without the use of additive and toxic chemicals. Do these methods cost more? Yes. Would they require formulation and processing adjustments? Yes. Would saving lives justify the added cost and work? Only the marketplace can answer that.

As a parting thought, let’s consider a country with an equally baffling and opposite approach: the United Kingdom. Since the introduction of the BS5852 Crib 5 standard, the Brits can cite excellent statistics showing a dramatic decline in fire deaths. Crib 5 foams are generally produced using high levels of TCPP (an additive chlorophosphate ester, and structural analog of TCEP and TDCPP, two compounds on the carcinogen list of almost every country) in conjunction with melamine. In some cases, Crib 5 foams contain between 5-7% by weight of TCPP alone! Conservative estimates are that about 5,000 tonnes per year of TCPP are used in Crib 5 foams, presumably most of this entering the U.K. Since TCPP is not chemically bound into the polymer, where do these 5,000 tonnes go? One answer is that TCPP volatilizes out of the foam with time, and surprise!, renders the furniture piece less and less likely to pass BS5852 over months and years (if BS5852 had a humid aging test requirement, the use of TCPP would a non-starter). At the end of the foam life cycle, the remainder of that TCPP enters the environment, our food and our bodies. There are those who say, “Sure, TCPP has been detected in the blood assays of adults and children, but there is no evidence it is causing any harm.” Really? Do you wish to gamble your heath and your child’s health on such a position? Your call.

It’s time for TCPP to go in favor of newer technology and more creative approaches. Our industry is technically capable of achieving a proper balance between fire safety and health concerns. Now is the time.

Denny Spicher

Denny Spicher is President of Cellular Technology International, based in Atlanta, GA, USA. He is grateful to have the chance to write this guest editorial for PU Magazine. The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily endorsed or shared by PU Magazine.