Furniture in the waiting room at Kaiser Permanente’s San Marcos, Calif., medical office will be replaced over time with products free of flame-retardant chemicals.

Four major health care systems announced they will stop buying furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals and use their collective purchasing power to persuade leading furniture companies to eliminate the toxic chemicals from their products.

Advocate Health Care, Downers Grove, Ill.; Beaumont Health System, Royal Oak, Mich.; Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center; and University Hospitals, Cleveland, recently said they will stop specifying upholstered furniture treated with toxic, flame-retardant chemicals where code permits.

The four health care systems, which represent 7,000 patient beds throughout their respective states, met with several leading furniture companies in Chicago in September to discuss opportunities to speed up elimination of flame-retardant chemicals in their products.

Along with Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif., which in June was the first health care provider to announce its plan to stop buying furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals, the five health care systems spend an estimated $50 million a year on furniture for their facilities.

With 38 hospitals and more than 600 medical offices, Kaiser Permanente alone spends about $30 million annually on furniture, says John Kouletsis, senior vice president of facilities planning and design.

Advocate spends from $12 million to $15 million annually on new furniture for its 250 sites of care, including 12 hospitals mostly in the Chicago area, says Mary Larsen, manager, environmental stewardship, Advocate Health Care.

"Demand from these health systems will drive the production of furniture that does not include toxic, flame-retardant chemicals," says Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI).

"Because the health care sector is such a large part of the economy, hospitals can help to shift the marketplace, which will benefit public health and make products safer for all consumers," he says.

Research shows that commonly used flame-retardant chemicals can pose a threat to human health and the environment although halogenated flame retardants appear to have the most serious health risk based on existing data, experts say.

HCWH and HHI organized the meeting at Chicago's Merchandise Mart so furniture companies could discuss the issue with representatives from six health care systems across the country.

Each company at the meeting supports the mission, but is at different stages of eliminating the chemicals, says Rachel L. Gibson, director, safer chemicals program, HCWH.

"Some are closer than others. Some seem to have more resources focused on it than others," she says.

Thaddeus Owen, chief engineer, sustainability team, Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., says the company has set a goal of eliminating the flame-retardant chemicals from its products by Jan. 1.

"That's the internal date we're working toward and we're very confident, so far, that we're going to make it," Owen says.

Steven Kooy, global sustainability manager, Haworth Inc.,
Holland, Mich., says the company is continuing a drive well underway to eliminate flame-retardant chemicals from its products by the end of this year, especially if it gets cooperation from one more of its foam material suppliers. Foam in furniture is commonly treated with the chemical.

Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Mich., which is a major furniture supplier of Kaiser Permanente and Advocate, has a holistic approach to eliminate flame retardants from its entire product portfolio, says Tammy Ayers, manager of materials chemistry strategy and practice, Steelcase.

"We are actively working with our supply chain to eliminate and phase out materials of concern, including flame retardants, and helping to guide the development of alternatives that meet Steelcase's stringent requirements," she says.

A change in California state law that no longer necessitated the use of the flame-retardant chemicals to meet fire safety standards as of Jan. 1, 2014, opened the door for elimination of these chemicals in furniture.

On Sept. 30, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that requires manufacturers to label products with flame-retardant chemicals beginning Jan. 1. The move is projected to hasten the nationwide demise of products that include these chemicals.

The health care systems and furniture companies that met in September plan to reconvene some time next year to discuss progress on the issue, Larsen says.