This story was updated on 23 May 2014 to add comments from BIFMA, and the AFMA.
St Petersburg, Florida -- US testing labs are struggling to find a consistent approach to the new US CAL TB 117-2013 test for furniture flammability, delegates at the PFA Technical program were told.
The Polyurethane Foam Association held its annual meetings on April 30 and May 1.
Ron Scheck, of flexible foam fabrication company American Excelsior, told the session on testing and compliance that his firm had asked three different test labs questions about how the new test was conducted and received contradictory answers.
He said “Labs don’t seem to be on the same page. We sent out three different samples from the same lab sample of a block of foam and one passed and two failed.
“The labs don’t seem to be using the same procedures. I think that there are some issues with the labs’ interpretation of the procedures. If you talk to them you can hear the similarities, but you sure can see the differences in their interpretation,” he added.
Scheck went on to tell the meeting that his firm had purchased test fabrics. Not only had these been “very, very different, even though they met the standards.” The fabrics behaved differently in the tests, some passed and some failed.
One of American Excelsior’s customers asked about the laundering process that the fabric goes through before conditioning and use in the test. “It seemed that two different labs had two different processes for laundering.” he said. This discrepancy went “all the way to the use of detergent or whether a foreign chemical could have made it into the process," said Scheck,
“So there’s nothing to specify the laundering process. If there’s detergent in the laundering process, is there a specific detergent? One lab was questioning how many cycles the laundry had to be done to be considered laundered and how long that cycle was. Is there a special machine or dryer?" he asked.
Scheck added that “many of the labs were still using the Pall Mall store-bought cigarettes for the test rather than the standardised cigarettes specified.The NIST-approved (National Institute of Standards and Technology) cigarettes were not being used “because of their cost,” he added.
There is also a “huge inconsistency in the burn chamber,” he added. Scheck explained that this is important because the chamber has a big effect on the way that samples perform in the test.
“There is also some concern on the positioning of the sample in the chamber” which is important because of the inconsistency of chamber use, he added.
Although Scheck had reservations about Cal 117-2012, Andy Counts ceo at American Home Furnishing Alliance (AHFA) was more up-beat. “I think the standard certainly is a vast improvement over the original proposal… which was completely unworkable.” I think that we have a standard which will be workable, once the supply chain makes the proper adjustments, he added.
“I think we will be able to live with this standard, Counts added.
AHFA, which represents firms making 42% of all the domestic furniture sold in the US equivalent to $11 billion in wholesale shipments of home furnishings products every year, recently surveyed 20 of its members to get snapshot of where they are with CAL TB 117-2013 implementation. Counts said there were 10 responses, four of which were undecided. Six detailed responses show that CAL TB 117-2013 is the defacto national standard. The respondents said they would be compliant with the standard as quickly as possible and by the 2015 deadline.
Counts said: Stakeholders want to know our members, your firms are doing about to flame retardant chemistry.
“I think there will be a handful of companies that will continue to use FR chemistry but, as far as our membership goes, most are moving away from it. I don’t think that there’s any scientific reason for this, I think its society that’s doing it, taking FR chemistry out of the product.
“Right now we are faced with a one-sided conversation about chemistry, and until that conversation gets changed, our members’ hands are tied, Counts said.
Jim Groulx of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufactures Association (BIFMA) told the meeting that the office furniture business in the US is worth around $8-9bn.
“BIFMA faces a dilemma,” explained Groulx: “do we remove flame retardants out of our furniture, and maybe cause another issue or do we keep them in and stay with the status quo?”
“We took a position as an industry that we should move flame retardants out of our product where we can,” he said. This is despite his assertion that: “To our knowledge, there’s never been a known death in an office fire caused by office furniture.” Most office fires are caused by electrical faults and careless maintenance, he said.
However, the customers of BIFMA members are contract dealers which win contracts to furnish a whole office block. They can dictate the type of furniture that they want. Designers and architects also have a lot of power in choosing office furnishing. These groups are interested in carbon footprint, the green credentials of furniture. It was pressure from these groups that lead to the change in policy. These groups see that there have been a lot of changes in society since CAL TB 117 was introduced in the 70s, fewer people are smoking in this country. There have been bans on smoking in public places. Some states are banning smoking in shared buildings like apartment complexes, Groulx added. Additionally there is technology such as smoke alarms and cigarettes that tend to go out are available today, he told the meeting.
Groulx also works for All Steel, an American office furniture company. He said: “We have a 30 key suppliers including six to eight foam suppliers.” To ensure that his firm produces furniture that complies with CAL TB 117 he said: “we have to contact these people directly to find out details of the formulation, an” I’m not saying that they all do it but most of them [foam suppliers] don’t want to give us any information,” He said. He added this is “required by law, there has to be full disclosure of materials. Every one of us has to have test documentation” said Groulx
“Most of the big foam suppliers have written to me to tell me that they have removed FRs,” he said.
He pleaded for foam companies to include CAS numbers with the detail of their formulations which makes it easier to tell if chemicals are on the California list of Banned chemicals Prop, 65.
In another area, Groulx pointed out the disruption that changing a regulation can have on a business. “A great deal of All Steel’s customer documents will need to be updated,” he said.
“We have to change all our internet, prices catalogues, anywhere there is a reference to TB-117. So there’s a lot of work there, these are the things that people don’t think about” when they change standards, Groulx said.