Are flame retardants regulated in the United States?
Is the use of flame retardants regulated outside of the United States?
Over the last few years, have any flame retardants been removed from the market?
Why is the EPA reviewing HBCD?
California has a tougher flammability standard for furniture than the rest of the country. Why is it so important to keep those standards in place?

Q: Are flame retardants regulated in the United States?

A: All chemicals manufactured in the United States or imported into the United States are subject to a regimen of oversight, testing and approval under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a United States law that regulates already existing and the introduction of new chemicals. TSCA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which works to protect the public and environment by ensuring chemicals are manufactured, imported and used safely. Since the chemical industry is engaged in global commerce, new products also must meet rigorous foreign standards.

Regarding new chemicals, under TSCA, companies are required to file a pre-manufacturing notification (PMN) for EPA’s review. A PMN includes information such as specific chemical identity, use, anticipated production volume, exposure and release information, and existing available test data. EPA’s New Chemicals Program identifies and analyzes new chemicals that are of the greatest concern and manages their potential risk to human health and the environment. According to EPA, the program “functions as a ‘gatekeeper’ that can identify conditions, up to and including a ban on production, to be placed on the use of a new chemical before it is entered into commerce.” In addition to TSCA, consumer product safety legislation and additional laws and/or regulations at the state level provide further oversight.

Q: Is the use of flame retardants regulated outside of the United States?

A: The chemical industry engages in global commerce and, as a result, the manufacturing and processing of chemicals undergo review in many countries around the world. For example, the European Union’s (EU) Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), which went into effect in 2008, requires chemical manufacturers or importers in the European Union to demonstrate their products are safe for people and the environment. In addition, in 2006, the EU implemented the RoHS Directive, the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. RoHS bans the sale of any new electrical and electronic equipment placed on the EU market that does not comply with agreed upon levels of six different chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers used as flame retardants.

Q: Over the last few years, have any flame retardants been removed from the market?

A: Discussions between the Environmental Protection Agency and manufacturers and importers of DecaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) resulted in an EPA-Industry DecaBDE Phase-Out Initiative in 2009. As part of the initiative, leading producers of DecaBDE have committed to voluntarily phasing out the production of decaBDE in the United States by 2013. DecaBDE is an effective flame retardant that has been used in transportation, electrical products and electronics, textiles and upholstered furniture for more than 30 years. At the same time, the voluntary decision to phase out production and offer customers alternative products represents the industry’s continued engagement in promoting a wide range of effective and sustainable flame retardants.

In 2004, the only U.S. manufacturer of penta-brominated diphenyl ether (PentaBDE) and octabromodiphenyl ether (OctaBDE) voluntarily phased out the production and use of these chemicals. PentaBDE and OctaBDE were used as flame retardants in products including foam furniture, electronics and appliances. Subsequently, the EPA also ruled that no new manufacture or import of these two chemicals could occur without first going through an EPA evaluation. As of June 2011, eleven states have enacted legislation banning both chemicals.

Q: Why is the EPA reviewing HBCD?

A: HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) is a brominated flame retardant, primarily used in polystyrene thermal insulation foams utilized by the building and construction industry to meet fire safety standards. HBCD is very effective at low levels, offering a high degree of fire safety without affecting the quality of thermal insulation, which is important to energy conservation and efficiency. Another unique feature of HBCD in this application is that it is unlikely that it would be released into the environment because it is bound in the polymer matrix. Currently, it is the only commercially available flame retardant that can function in this application. HBCD is also used to a much lesser extent in the back coating of textiles, which allows upholstered foam furniture to be fire-resistant.

In August 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated an action plan to further review HBCD to determine whether it posed an unacceptable risk to humans. According to EPA, HBCD has been shown to be persistent and bioaccumulative. EPA intends to consider taking action under the Toxic Substances Control Act to address the managing, processing and distribution of HBCD. EPA has also initiated an alternatives assessment—EPA’s process, under its Design for Environment program, for identifying and evaluating possible alternative chemicals. In 2008, the EU placed HBCD on the list of Substances of Very High Concern because studies showed that HBCD was toxic to aquatic organisms and may have long-term negative effects in the aquatic environment.

Q: California has a tougher flammability standard for furniture than the rest of the country. Why is it so important to keep those standards in place?

A: In 1975, with the implementation of Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), California set the toughest furniture flammability standards in the United States and is currently the only state with fire safety regulations for upholstered furniture. TB 117 requires upholstered furniture to withstand 12 seconds of an open flame, from heat sources such as candles, lighters and matches, without igniting. The state’s continued support for maintaining the standards outlined in TB 117 is not only an endorsement of the important fire protection function of flame retardants, but also a recognition of the critical safety net 12 seconds may offer someone who is trying to escape a fire, particularly those most at risk (i.e. children and the elderly).

In 2003, the New Zealand Fire Service Commission conducted research to assess whether new regulations to improve the fire safety of upholstered furniture should be introduced in that country. The commission’s March 2003 published research included an analysis of TB 117. According to the report, In California, where mandatory standards for home furnishings have been in place since 1975, incidences of fire death, injury and property loss have fallen faster than in the United States as a whole.  In addition, between 1978 (three years after TB117 was implemented) and 1995, the number of deaths in the United States where upholstered furniture was the first item to be ignited declined by 58.1 percent. The number of upholstered furniture fires declined by 68.4 percent.

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