Shopping for Furniture? Check the Labels  |  Triple Pundit

By Judy Levin

If you are shopping for furniture, you may already know that there has been a sea-change in the marketplace. Until recently, most foam-filled furniture contained large amounts of toxic flame retardant chemicals, substances that can cause cancer, infertility and other serious health problems. But after years of pressure from the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and others, in 2013 California changed its rule that promoted the use of these chemicals.

Given the might of the California market, that one change has created major changes in furniture sold nationwide.

New rules for safer furniture

It is now possible to buy new furniture made without toxic flame retardants. CEH’s online shopping guides are the most up-to-date resource for buyers, whether you’re a major business buying for thousands of employees or a family looking for a new couch. The guides show that 20 office furniture companies and 37 residential furniture companies representing nearly 60 brands are now offering safer furniture made without toxic flame retardants.

While the 2013 California rule (called TB 117-2013) has been in effect for a while, until this year consumers could not be sure about new furniture. That’s because the new rule required companies to make products without additional flame retardants, but did not require them to eliminate the chemicals altogether. So, a tag on furniture stating it was “TB 117-2013 compliant” was a good indication that the product was flame-retardant free, but it was not a sure thing.

To protect consumers’ right to know about flame retardants in furniture, CEH co-sponsored a California bill (SB 1019) that now requires labels on new furniture to indicate whether products contain flame retardant chemicals. While the state law is only binding in California, the company surveys we conducted to create our guides found that about 75 percent of the companies that are offering products without flame retardants are labeling their furniture nationwide.

While our guides show that many companies have made progress, there is still furniture out there made with flame retardants. We wanted to test the marketplace, so I conducted an unscientific review at Bay Area outlets of three major national retailers. My visits to the three stores showed that these labels are now in use — at least on some furniture.

Checking the labels

The three stores I visited — JC Penney, Pottery Barn Kids and Macy’s — showed that retailers are still adjusting to the new rules, some more quickly than others.

My first stop was JC Penney.

First I found this sofa, with a TB 117-2013 label. A good start, but I was looking for a sure thing.
First I found this sofa, with a TB 117-2013 label. A good start, but I was looking for a sure thing.
JCPenny2
I was in luck! This sofa from Penney’s — and several other sofas, chairs and other furniture in the store — had labeling to let buyers know that the materials in this product “CONTAIN NO ADDED FLAME RETARDANT CHEMICALS.”
But not every item at Penney's was "new and improved." This on-sale sofa had an old TB 117 tag - a good indication that it was made before the recent changes, and likely contains flame retardants. So if you're looking at "sale" items, it may be even more important check the tags before you buy.
But not every item at Penney’s was “new and improved.” This on-sale sofa had an old TB 117 tag — a good indication that it was made before the recent changes, and likely contains flame retardants. So, if you’re looking at “sale” items, it may be even more important check the tags before you buy.

Next stop: Pottery Barn Kids

These cute kids' chairs had TB 117-2013 labels, but no label to indicate whether the chairs were made with or without flame retardants. The chairs were likely made before 1/1/15, when California law requiring flame retardant labeling came into effect.
These cute kids’ chairs had TB 117-2013 labels, but no label to indicate whether the chairs were made with or without flame retardants. The chairs were likely made before Jan. 1, 2015, when the California law requiring flame retardant labeling came into effect.
Luckily, this bean bag chair had the latest label, showing that the materials in the chair "contain NO added flame retardant chemicals."
Luckily, this bean bag chair had the latest label, showing that the materials in the chair “contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”
But there was also this white chair for new Moms, still with the old TB 177 label, an indication the product is likely to contain flame retardants. A good reminder to always check the tag!
But there was also this white chair for new Moms, still with the old TB 177 label, an indication the product is likely to contain flame retardants. A good reminder to always check the tag!

My last and most disappointing stop was Macy’s.

I checked more than a dozen couches, chairs and other foam-filled furniture at Macy’s, but I couldn’t find a single item with the new label disclosing whether or not the furniture contains flame retardants. Even more surprising, I didn’t find a single piece that had a new TB 117-2013 tag.

I did find several pieces like this love seat, with this tag, a warning under California's Prop 65 law.
I did find several pieces like this love seat, with this tag, a California Prop 65 warning.

Under California law, companies are required to warn consumers when products can expose us to certain flame retardants that are known to cause cancer. Apparently Macy’s furniture contains one or more of these chemicals — most likely the flame retardant chlorinated Tris. But with other, safer products available from other retailers, Macy’s shoppers may want to look elsewhere (to be clear, I shopped at only one Macy’s store, so we can’t say if this is a company-wide issue or is unique to that location).

The bottom line is that consumers have more information now than ever before about harmful flame retardants in furniture. In response, many furniture companies are making safer products, without these harmful chemicals. Thanks to CEH, you no longer have to shop in the dark when you buy new furniture.

Featured image: Flickr/PoshSurfside.com All other images courtesy of Judy Levin

Judy Levin is the Flame Retardant Campaign Director at the Center for Environmental Health.