Photo by S. F. Pitman.

Cross-posted from Sightline.

Eureka! In a legislative dogfight of global significance, the California legislature will consider a bill this spring to modernize the “12-second rule,” the state’s obscure furniture flammability standard that fails to protect us from fires even while it poisons homes across North America.

Late last month, Rep. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced AB 2197 [PDF], a bill that will bring California’s flammability standard into line with 35 years of independent fire safety science and 20 years of research by the U.S. government.

California’s furniture market is so big that manufacturers treat the 12-second rule as a North American standard — they don’t want to make two different product lines. “The entire world is watching California to see if we will act to prevent continuing global contamination from chemicals used to meet [the 12-second rule],” writes the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sarah Janssen.

The 12-second rule relies on an open flame ignition standard — furniture foam cannot ignite when exposed to an open flame for 12 seconds. But because this test applies only to the stuffing inside furniture and not to the fabric that covers the stuffing — and first encounters flames in real fires — the rule provides no fire safety benefits [PDF]. All it does is force furniture makers to blend flame retardants into the foam — chemicals that are suspected or proven to cause a list of maladies ranging from infertility and impotence to obesity and cancer.

The California bill, backed by a coalition of firefighters, scientists, businesses, consumers, and public health advocates, would replace this standard with one based on smolder ignition. In the test, a lit cigarette is placed on a model piece of furniture called a “mock-up” for 45 minutes. If the smoldering cigarette produces flames at any point, the mock-up fails the test. After 45 minutes, the fabric cannot continue to smolder and the foam underneath cannot have lost more than 10 percent of its mass.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission [PDF], which devised the smolder ignition standard, reviewed national fire loss estimates for 2002-2004 and found that “approximately 90% of estimated deaths, 65% of estimated injuries, and 59% of property damage resulted from ignition by smoking materials, almost always cigarettes.”

Whereas the 12-second rule is 0 percent effective [PDF], the modernized standard would likely be 60 percent effective [PDF] at reducing these deaths, injuries, and damages, according to the Commission. And the new standard does not have the side effect of promoting use of toxic chemicals.

Furniture manufacturers can use either of two strategies [PDF] to comply with the new standard. They can use smolder-resistant cover materials such as wool, which is naturally fire-resistant, or they can use natural barriers between the cover fabric and the interior foam.

Natural fabrics, natural barriers, no toxic chemicals! Too good to be true?

The Consumer Products Safety Commission implemented a similar flammability standard for mattresses in 2007, and it is commonly met [PDF] using inexpensive barrier technology rather than mixing flame retardants into foam. One manufacturer simply wraps its mattresses with a layer of wool quilting. In five years, one Commission model estimates [PDF] the new flammability standard has resulted in at least 1,200 fewer deaths and 5,750 fewer injuries from mattress fires. Countless more people were spared exposure to toxic chemicals.

Still, supporters of the new furniture flammability bill will need to fend off Big Chem, its proxies, and its misled parade of witnesses.

AB 2197 is the sixth attempt in six years to curtail toxic flame retardants in furniture. A bill introduced in 2007 banned a particularly dangerous flame retardant, but it failed. In 2008, a bill outlawed a host of dangerous flame retardants. It failed. In 2009, a bill sought exemption for children’s products. It failed. A bill in 2010 placed flame retardants under regulatory control of California’s Green Chemistry Initiative. It failed. Last year, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a mild bill that offered manufacturers an alternative flammability standard. It failed in committee.

This year, champions for change are upping the ante. Instead of a piecemeal approach, they are demanding a tough flammability standard that actually protects Californians from fire — and from chemicals.

“Just this past week, a UC Davis study was the newest among many that link fire retardant chemical exposure to autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, decreased fertility, and other serious health conditions,” notes Ana Mascareñas of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Rachel Sarnoff from Healthy Child, Healthy World echoes, “Moms and dads shouldn’t feel they have to be biochemists to shop for safe products for their children.”

For more information about how you can get involved in the furniture flammability standard, see the original story in Sightline. Over the past seven months, they’ve described this scientifically discredited standard; provided nine (adorable) reasons to modernize the standard; refuted Big Chem’s star witness; and uncovered the engine of toxic political influence that shuns fire safety in favor of profits.