42537488 – retro pillows on the cozy grey sofa in the living room

36 minutes of smoke filling a room after a sofa was ignited with a hot iron was the length of time it took for the typical smoke detector to sound and the sofa to finally burst into flames. NBC News, in Rossen Reports: Popular smoke alarms may go off too late, experts warn, reported that most home smoke detectors use a technology called ionization, which in today’s home fail sound the alarm until it can be too late to save lives. And while alerting the public to this very real problem is commendable, however, it is only part of the story. As furniture designers, the long delay before a flame is no surprise to us. It is a key requirement of the California Flammability Standard (CAL 117).

CPSC Study – “Testing shows treated foam offers no safety benefit” – The Chicago Tribune Watchdog – Michael Hawthorne – May 6, 2012

Since 1975, in order to stop cigarette smolder fires, all residential upholstered furniture sold in California must meet CAL117. With most retail stores selling nationwide and not wanting to segregate inventory, the standard has been adopted by default nationwide. This standard requires foam used in furniture cushions (and a wide range of common consumer and children’s products) to be flame retardant, slowing the foam from catching on fire too quickly. To make products that meet the standard, manufacturers must use polyurethane foam that contains many flame retardant (FR) chemicals, which are known to the state of California to cause cancer. These flame retardants produce hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide which are responsible for 60-80% of smoke inhalation fire deaths according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

Even without fire, that new furniture smell is an FR chemical smell. These chemicals, while making you safer from fire, off-gas in your house for years making the air you and your children breathe more toxic in general and are making fires more deadly. As demonstrated on NBC News, when cushions smolder for 36 minutes, the volume of smoke released into the air before the alarm sounds is enough to kill a person, especially a child, even if the flames they were intended to prevent do not kill them first. But, the answer to better fire prevention is not just to have both ionization smoke detectors (for flame smoke) and photoelectric detectors (for smolder smoke) installed in your home as recommended by the National Fire Prevention Association.

As both furniture designers and parents, we are closely monitoring Safer Chemicals/Healthy Families organization as they press for federal chemical policy reform. We are also constantly proposing alternative, cost-effective ways to make furniture and other products safer. If potential cancer-causing chemical load or residential air quality is not enough of a reason to change the FR chemicals, perhaps this smoke alarm revelation can bring it to a tipping point.

About Hazz Design: Graduates of Rhode Island School of Design, product designers Tracy and Tom Hazzard have worked together for most of their two-decade marriage and professional lives. Their shared vision that good design should never cost more, that there is always a solution, and that one-plus-one can have an exponential result has earned them career-expanding projects, multiple design awards, more than two dozen patents, two children and a fine-tuned sense of what consumers want and need in well-designed products.
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