Bad publicity dogs the US foam sector
by Liz White
Fire regulation in the US is heavily influenced by environmental groups and the current moves to ban chlorinated and brominated fire retardants is, "one of the most political events I have ever been involved in, in my career," commented Bob Luedeka, executive director of the US Polyurethane Foam Association.
Looking generally at furniture fire regulation, Luedeka said environmentalists have influenced congress members, and this filtered down to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPS).The result was that, "after some 13 years of ... trying to get an open-flame standard for furniture, that was just taken off the table," Luedeka exclaimed.
But he thinks the new approach (see box below) "represents a fair standard in terms of the risk of injury and fire within America."
The prospect is for the proposed open-flame standard for furniture to be dropped and replaced by smoulder ignition.
The smoulder ignition test would minimise reliance on FR chemicals, although it doesn't ban the use of them, he said: "They have written the proposal to be very careful that it would not include a requirement for it."
Looking at the potential US ban on chlorinated and brominated FRs, which started with a bill in the California legislature, Luedeka said, "For now we can safely say that any resemblance to good science is completely lost, and Iwould say fairly that that's true on sides."
The message from the environmenta lists seems to be that penta (pentabromodiethy-l-ether) is still used in the foam produced in furniture, that it's not just in furniture in California, it's in every household in America and the threat of penta is even in babies' cribs, bumper pads and nursing pads, "so they have done everything they can Lu scare the heck out of the public," Luedeka said.
On the other hand, the fire departments say there is a huge threat of fire, so FRs are needed.
And the CPSC, meanwhile, says there are less than 30 deaths a year caused by openflame ignition of furniture - less than one death per million, Luedeka said.
"So both sides are exaggerating and it's been very difficult to be in the middle for our industry which is getting a black eye through this," the PFA chief said.
One of the issues is that this proposal could pass in California, without an official risk assessment to show safety, stressed Luedeka.
"We have asked the fire-retardant suppliers to please bring forth safety data on their products," said Luedeka. "If we could find one exception ... if we could find one halogenated FR that is safe for consumer use, it kills the bill," he commented.
This issue is "generating now enormous amounts of bad news, which contains false and misleading information, and it's very difficult fc us to make a good image for polyurethane foam in light of that situation," Luedeka commented.
Articles coming out of California include one called 'killer couches' "which is extremely inaccurate, containing all kinds of misleading information" but was picked up by national news, commented Luedeka.
Furniture hurt by economy
Discussing the economic situation in the US, Luedeka said, "In the lower earnings segments we're in a really severe recession at the moment which affects the lower-priced end of the furniture business." "If you're in a low income bracket ... it’s very expensive to get credit or a mortgage and that cuts back on your ability to buy furniture and household goods, which affects the polyurethane foam industry," Luedeka said.
"If you're on a low income and barely making by and seem to owe your life to a bank then when fuel prices hit $50 you're not going to go out and buy furniture at all," he added.
So we're seeing the low end of the furniture industry drop from very slow to almost nothing at all."
Chinese imports add to woes
As if that wasn't enough, "We're also having the problem of China, where the threat in furniture and bedding is strong," said Luedeka, adding that, "one of the things driving this is the raw materials economics of the PU industry."
"With a trading pattern already established between furniture and bedding manufacturers and Chinese resources, as these economics become worse. then the number of companies that decide to move their manufacturing operations from the US to China increases rapidly," he commented.
"It's like a big mud slide, where the high volume parts of our furn iture and bedding industry is sliding, manufacturers are giving up US jobs and going to China and suddenly we're watching the base for the PU industry disappearing," Luedeka said.
"Our manufacturers are looking at ways to try and counter these trends to get our business back and create more value," he said, pointing out that "CertiPUR is one way of doing this."
BARRIER FABRIC CRUCIAL
CPSC is taking the furniture fabric as the point of ignition,classifying it into two types, a synthetic fabric that would be resistant to smoulder ignition and a smoulder-prone fabric, often made of natural fibres, which tend to be easy to ignite.
The idea is to create a barrier of batting material beneath the fabric to protect the cushion contents from ignition. Compliant fabrics may be used with any filling material, polyurethane or latex foam or cotton batting or polyester. The earliest the rule is likely to be approved by CPSC is in 2009, with the effective date possibly early in 2010, Luedeka commented.
The type-two barrier must pass a number of tests, both resistance to smouldering and to open flame. "This is different to the tough US mattress barrier test, and once the barrier is qualified, you can use any fabric with it or any filling material," Luedeka observed.
The PFA has found the fabric test easy to pass; "it is not very challenging," he said.