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Fanning the flames

They say that California is a bellwether state. If so, there is now an ill wind blowing in from the west that could foul the already stultifying home textiles environment.

It's a piece of legislation called Assembly Bill 603. Written and introduced by Assemblyman John Dutra, 20th Assembly District, it would require that all bedding products— including sheets, quilts, comforters and pillows — be made flame-retardant. If the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation concludes that bedding products contribute to mattress fires, sales of non-retardant bedding in California will be banned as of Jan. 1, 2004.

When word of the bill reached the HFPA last week, the organization sent out a blitz of e-mails urging members to register their opposition to the bill with Dutra's district office in Sacramento.

The HFPA estimates that if the standard were adopted, the cost of manufacturing goods would climb by roughly 25 percent. Not exactly a welcome prospect at a time when many in the industry are fighting to hang onto any small point of margin that they can.

Here are the association's arguments against the bill:

  • That tests conducted in 1998 found that bed clothes release 50 kW to 200 kW of heat—well under the 1,100 kW required to bring an average-size bedroom to "flashover," or conflagration.

  • That treating bedding products with flame-retardant chemicals raises potential toxicity problems, not just for the consumers who would sleep against the treated fabrics every night, but most especially for infants and children who mouth their bedding.

  • That the long-term impact of human exposure to flame-retardant chemicals is not yet known.

  • That environmental agencies fear some flame-retardant chemicals may be dangerous, and that the European Commission has set a deadline for banning at least one variety of FR chemical by July 2003.

The American Textiles Manufacturers Institute has also protested some of the wording in the bill, notifying Dutra that the bill may ultimately create "new and more far-reaching hazards to both consumers and the environment." The ATMI has suggested that the bill require the bureau to consider data provided by the industry regarding available technology, risks and economic impacts (including the costs to consumers) of such as standard.

In terms of industry reaction, the fight is just getting started. However, in California, the bill has passed through committee three times and has already sustained amendments. Ironically, it began life as a bill directed at mattress and box spring producers. Bedding was tacked on along the way as an amendment.

The potential costs will be felt by retailers as well as manufacturers, of course. And certainly there's little appeal in the prospect of spending 2002-2003 retooling operations, submitting to additional testing and cleaning out old inventories.

For an industry that has plenty to contend with already, this is one more fight it may have to shoulder.

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