Capitol Comments

Concerns Raised About PU Foam/Fire-Resistant Chemicals

By Peter Mayberry and Jessica Franken | June 7, 2007

recent Federal and state actions could drive interest in nonwoven alternatives

For more than 10 years, efforts have been undertaken at both the state and Federal levels of government to require levels of fire resistance in upholstered furniture, mattresses, bedding materials and other consumer goods. Underlying these efforts, however, have been concerns about the potential health repercussions that could result from a lifetime spent indoors with items that are made with fire resistant (FR) foam or treated with FR chemicals. One way to address such concerns is to use interliners that have FR properties and do not contain certain chemicals.
In recent months, there have been some developments that could, in fact, help to generate even greater debate about the safety of polyurethane (PU) foam and certain FR chemicals. And, since these actions could have an impact on the nonwovens industry, we will summarize them here.

Pending DOT Petition on Polyurethane Foam

On March 30, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) published notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on a petition received October 31, 2006 from the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM). In this petition, the fire marshals asked DOT to classify PU foam as a hazardous material in transportation at the Federal level and to "explore the need for additional regulatory oversight of products manufactured using PU foam."
In its petition, NASFM noted that numerous government agencies regulate the use and storage of PU foam, but that "a gap exists in ensuring the safe transportation of this hazardous material." DOT requires most hazardous materials transported in commerce to carry identifying placards that describe how the substance will react in the event of a fire and how it may be handled safely, among other things, NASFM notes. Yet the DOT placard requirements do not apply to most grades of rigid and flexible PU foam or finished products that are constructed with PU foam, placing first responders and the public at risk if an accident occurs with a truck carrying these materials.
To address this risk, the petition seeks: 1) assignment of a North American Identification number for PU foam; 2) requirements that shippers/carriers travel with shipping papers; 3) employee training for those who transport PU foam; 4) specific packaging requirements and 5) mandatory placards for trucks carrying PU foam. In addition, the petition asks that carriers display Orange Panels with the identification number to identify the presence of PU foam for initial responders and seeks a requirement that transportation incidents involving PU foam fires be reported to PHMSA. Lastly, the petition asks that a safety measure for PU foam incidents be incorporated into the 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) as a "safety alert."
NASFM does not rule out the possibility of giving exemptions under its proposal. The fire marshals note, for instance, that compliance with the mattress flammability regulations recently promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) may exempt compliant mattresses from classification as a hazardous material. Some upholstered furniture used by institutions such as health care facilities, prisons and hotels meeting the state of California's most stringent fire safety requirements for institutional use and, therefore, might also be eligible for exemption under the NASFM petition.
In terms of process, the NASFM petition asks DOT to initiate formal rulemaking procedures to finalize an Interim Final Rule and to explore the need for additional regulatory oversight of products manufactured using PU foam through the issuance of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. But, according to PHMSA's March 30 Federal Register notice, the agency has not decided to initiate a rulemaking action on the substance of the petition. Instead, the Agency has only requested comments to help decide whether they should proceed. PHMSA is accepting public comments on the merits of the NASFM petition until June 28.

Other Efforts

At the Federal level, CPSC is also considering possible impacts of flame-retardant chemical use on worker safety and the environment. CPSC staff, in fact, evaluated potential health risks associated with textile and foam filling material that contains flame retardants in a joint project with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
In this research, NIOSH studied potential worker exposure—as well as potential risks from such exposure—to certain flame-retardant chemicals that could be used by textile and furniture producers in an effort to comply with CPSC's draft national flammability standard for upholstered furniture. NIOSH preliminarily concluded that significant worker health effects were unlikely.
As part of its rulemaking effort on upholstered furniture, CPSC also worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a significant new use rule for flame-retardant compounds used in residential upholstered furniture fabrics under the Toxic Substances Control Act. EPA is identifying environmentally preferable fire retardants under a Design for the Environment industry/government partnership that was published in September 2005. At CPSC's request, the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services is also initiating health studies of several fire retardants for which toxicity data are lacking.
Meanwhile, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) fire retardants (i.e. octa-, penta- and deca-BDE) have come under attack at the state level. Several states have already banned octa-BDE and penta-BDE used in things like high-impact plastic products (e.g. computers, fax machines) and various foam products. This year, however, state governments in California, Connecticut, New York, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Montana and Washington all proposed to ban the most widely used fire retardant in the U.S.: deca-BDE. The state of Washington, in fact, recently approved a ban on deca-BDE—generally used in adhesives and coatings for things like carpet and draperies—that goes into effect next year. While that ban is currently limited to mattresses, it could potentially be extended to televisions, computers, upholstered residential furniture and other consumer goods as early as 2011 provided an alternative flame retardant is approved.
What does all this mean for the nonwovens industry? To the extent that consumer products that contain PU foam end up with stricter transportation requirements, they could lose a certain degree of popularity in the market place. And while there is no guarantee that such restrictions will ultimately be adopted—or that trucking firms will shy away from carrying PU foam even if they are—it is noteworthy that the debate is occurring and could serve as an opportunity to tout alternatives to PU foam that meet existing and future FR requirements at the state and Federal levels.
Similarly, with the various FR chemicals being studied at the state and Federal levels, the nonwovens industry needs to be aware of those that are of concern and assess whether they need to alter manufacturing practices and/or raw material selections accordingly. But ,it must also be noted that the project involving CPSC and NIOSH has been underway for many years and has yet to gain much traction in the marketplace. Indeed, it will be extremely interesting to see the final CPSC rule on national FR standards for upholstered furniture once it is eventually published, as well as the impact that rule has on consumer purchases.