We believe a healthy environment in which to learn, work, and live is necessary. 

Harvard is committed to enhancing the health, productivity, and quality of life of our students, faculty, and staff by making smart, informed decisions about the design and maintenance of our built environment. 

Taking steps to eliminate harmful chemicals on campus:

As outlined in the Harvard Sustainability Plan, the University is committed to reducing the community's exposure to toxic chemicals, identifying and tracking high-risk chemicals in building materials, and targeting at least two significant chemicals of concern and developing a plan for eliminating exposure. 

Taking action on Chemical Flame Retardants:

Based on clear science and changes to regulations, Harvard has identified flame retardants as one class of harmful chemicals we can effectively target on our campus.learn more

Why Harvard is choosing a chemical flame retardant-free campus

Download our Toolkit and Buyer's Guide

We are partnering with Harvard faculty and organizations to research and understand the link between health and exposure to everyday toxic chemicals. 

We are working to educate and inform our community by offering trainings and materials that mobilize individual action.

We are institutionalizing change by implementing standards, working with our purchasers, and holding our vendors accountable. 

We're working with experts to identify and prioritize areas of concern.

Across Harvard’s Schools, faculty, including Philippe Grandjean, Joseph Allen, Jack Spengler, and Elsie Sunderland, are generating new discoveries about the effects of unregulated, harmful chemicals on public health and the built environment. 

Our University-wide Green Building Standards were updated in 2014 to include healthy material requirements for the disclosure of health and environmental impacts of products that are used on campus in order to help us assess opportunities to understand the community’s exposure to potential toxins.

Harvard is also partnering with groups such as the Silent Spring Institute, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Green Science Policy Institute to not only understand links between health and exposure to certain chemicals, but to identify and prioritize areas of concern.

In 2014, in collaboration with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Health and the Global Environment researchers, and the Silent Spring Institute, the Office for Sustainability helped found the Healthy Green Campus project to better understand the prevalence of harmful chemicals on campus and to make health an integral part of sustainability practices on college campuses.


Flame Retardants

There are over 80,000 chemicals in use today, many of which are unregulated. Researchers and scientists have grouped the majority of harmful chemicals found in everyday consumer products into six classes which are associated with long-term problems on our health and the environment. 

Flame retardants are one of the six classes of chemicals of concern that contain many of the harmful substances found in everyday products, including the foam in furniture. However, studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and others have shown that the chemicals don’t stop fires (they can even make them worse) and are associated with harmful health impacts

What's wrong with flame retardants?

The most harmful flame retardant chemicalsorganohalogen and organophosphorousthat can be found in furniture, show the following properties of concern:

  • Persistent: Do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment.
  • Long-range transport: Travel far from source of release and are distributed around the world.
  • Bio-accumulative: Build up in people and animals, becoming most concentrated at the top of the food chain.
  • Harmful to health: Often have long-term (chronic) rather than immediate health effects.

Chemical flame retardants escape from products and settle into dust that can be ingested or inhaled. According to the Silent Spring Institute, Americans have some of the highest measured levels of flame retardants in their blood in the world. In 2003, their researchers reported that levels of flame retardants in U.S. homes were ten times higher than in Europe. These harmful chemicals are linked to cancer, reproductive harm, reduced IQ, developmental delays, and obesity. 

As a result, recent changes to Massachusetts fire safety codes now allow Harvard’s Schools and departments to reduce health risk by purchasing furniture that meets strict fire safety standards without the use of harmful chemical flame retardants. 

Flame retardants in the news:


Avoiding chemical flame retardants on campus

In November 2015, Harvard became the first university to sign a national pledge stating a preference for purchasing chemical flame retardant-free furniture. Other signatories to the pledge include Kaiser Permanente, Facebook, Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts, and Autodesk. The Office for Sustainability is partnering with Harvard capital project and planning teams, Strategic Procurement, and Environmental Health and Safety to identify and source chemical flame retardant-free furniture across the University, and in accordance with regulations.

How to reduce your exposure to chemical flame retardants

According to the Center for Environmental Health, you can reduce your exposure to flame retardants in dust at home and in the office by washing your hands often and regularly wiping down your desk and other surfaces with a wet sponge or towel. You can also open your windows frequently for good ventilation and by regularly vacuuming, ideally with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arrestance) filter.

Watch Harvard faculty on flame retardants and health

Video series

Healthy Furniture Buyer's Guide

The best way to minimize risk and protect your community from harmful flame retardants is to choose chemical flame retardant-free furniture for your next capital project, renovation, or office furniture purchase.

Chemical Flame Retardant-Free Toolkit and Buyer's Guide

HOW HAVE REGULATIONS CHANGED?

In response to the widely researched health and safety impacts of flame retardants, Massachusetts’ strict fire safety codes were updated on January 1, 2015 to no longer require the use of these chemicals in furniture products for most public spaces. The changes to state fire code primarily apply to Cambridge and other non-Boston locations.  Effective July 2016, Boston’s fire safety codes will be updated and aligned with the state’s.

The change to the Massachusetts code is based on a new standard set by California called Technical Bulletin 117-2013 (TB 117-2013) that addresses the outside cover fabric, the place where fires actually start – the old standard focused on the inner foam. The new standard can now be met without the addition of harmful chemicals through the use of smolder resistant fabrics. However, some products may still include some amount of flame retardants so it is important for purchasers to confirm the furniture selected is flame retardant-free in all components including foam, fabric, barrier material, decking and plastic parts.

Steps for purchasing healthy furniture at Harvard

Major manufacturers and retailers are already making and offering furniture without flame retardants, often at a lower cost. Retailers including Ikea, Wal-Mart, Crate and Barrel, Room & Board, Pottery Barn, and West Elm have all asked their manufacturers to eliminate flame retardants from their products.

A survey conducted by the Office for Sustainability and Strategic Procurement found that of the 28 manufacturers that provide furniture through Harvard’s preferred vendors, 26 do not use flame retardants in all or some of their furniture products; all 28 are working to offer some flame retardant-free products. Of those surveyed, at least 15 reported that all of their products are free of flame retardants, and this number is expected to increase to 20 manufacturers by December 2015.

The Sustainability and Energy Management Council, the Office for Sustainability, and Strategic Procurement recommend that the Harvard community specify and purchase cost-competitive furniture that is free of flame retardants and meets all new applicable fire safety regulations and flammability standards. 

Project Managers:

  • Add language to your project’s contract and specs stating you would like to purchase furniture free of chemical flame retardants that meets the TB117-2013 standard. The Office for Sustainability can provide template technical specification for you to use.
  • Clearly communicate with all vendors that Harvard has a preference for products free of chemical flame retardants.
  • Confirm that the project’s code consultant clearly understands Harvard’s preference for chemical flame retardant-free furniture when allowed by the updated fire safety code.

Purchasers:

  • Confirm with your retailer or manufacturer that flame retardants have NOT been added to the product.
  • Confirm that the product has a TB117-2013 label that says it does not contain flame retardant chemicals. 
  • Avoid any products with a TB117 or TB133 label (unless required in Boston).

Buying Tips: 

  • Check the label located under the product or seat cushion to confirm the upholstered material includes no added flame retardants.
  • Because some fabrics may still contain chemicals, confirm with your retailer or manufacturer that flame retardants have NOT been added to the product (fabric or foam).
  • In order to obtain fully flame retardant-free products, confirm with your manufacturer that flame retardants were not added to any plastic parts.

Contact the Office for Sustainability for Harvard-specific guidance, sample technical specifications, and assistance in purchasing chemical flame retardant-free furniture.

Flame retardant-free furniture options from Harvard preferred vendors

Harvard’s preferred furniture vendors and manufacturers were surveyed on the use of flame retardant chemicals in their products. Below is a list of survey results, detailing the availability of flame retardant-free products from our vendors. This list will be updated in early 2016.

Preferred Vendor Manufacturer Products Without Chemical Flame Retardants (FR)
IN ALL CASES, NEED TO SPECIFY NO FR & TB 117-2013 TO ENSURE COMPLIANCE.
Creative Office Pavillion (COP) Allermuir All upholstered products.
COP Bernhardt No products. Goal of having information and processes in place within 6-8 months.
COP Bright Chair Company All upholstered products.
COP  Chair Master All upholstered products (though foam may have chemical flame retardants).
COP Eustis Chair All upholstered products.
COP Geiger All upholstered products except for Echohide textile (which will be phased out by 2016). Specify no Echohide.
COP Gunlocke

Some products.

COP Harden Goal to be 100% CFR free by March 1, 2015.
COP Hightower Some products (only received from RedThread, see below).
COP Humanscale All upholstered products (customers can request FRs added). 
COP Jack Cartwright Inc. All products can be made without flame retardants. Clients choose textiles. FRs eliminated from all Cartwright products by March 1, 2015. 
COP Keilhauer All standard upholstered products.
COP KI, Inc 100‐700 Series Folding Chairs, AerDyn Guest Chair, Affina Collection, Apply Seating, Arissa Collection, Avail Task Seating, Bantam Guest Seating, Cinturon Task Seating, Cody Lounge Seating, Concerto Auditorium Seating, Dorsal Stack Chair, Engage Seating, Exam Room Stools, Flex Collection, Gate One Seating, Grazie Seating, Hub Seating, Impress Task Seating, Intellect Wave Seating, Jessa Lounge Seating, Jubi Chair, Kismet Seating, Kurv Benches, Lancaster Auditorium Seating, LaResta Day Bed, Learn2 Seating, LogixSeating, Lyra Collection, Maestro Chair, Matrix Chair, Mesa Lounge Seating, Mesa Task Chair, MyWay Lounge Seating, Neena Bench, Perry Seating, Perth Collection, Pilot Task Chair, Piretti Stack Chair, Promenade Seating, Rapture Chair, Relax Lounge Seating, Rose Chair, Sela Lounge Collection, Silhouette Chair, Soltice Collection, Strive Seating, Tea Cup Lounge Seating, Three Collection, Torsion Chair, Torsion Air Chair, Torsion On The Go Chair, Versa Basic, Standard, Conference and XL Chairs
COP Lord's Upholstery All upholstered products.
COP South Shore Upholstery All CAL TB 117 upholstered products. 
COP Vitra Goal of all upholstered products by year end 2015.
RedThread 9 to 5 All upholstered products.
RedThread Allermuir Allermuir Clipper, Ecoflex, Evolve, Circo, Rhapsody, Sprint, Symmetry, Zenith, Ad-lib, Elios, Trillipse.
RedThread Bernhardt No products. Goal of having information and processes in place within 6-8 months.
RedThread BioFitEngineered Products Some products but no timeline for full line.
RedThread Cumberland Furniture All upholstered products.
RedThread Dauphin All upholstered products.
RedThread Davis Davis Upholstered products do not have chemical flame retardants. They changed their foam in March 2015 and eliminated TB117 foam, therefore Davis no longer has chemical flame retardants in their foam. 
RedThread HBF-Gunlocke Some products.
RedThread Hightower All upholstered products (though products that comply with TB133 have FRs in the upholstery fabric). 
RedThread Izzy and Harter All Izzy and Harter upholstered products constructed of molded foam are without chemical flame retardants. The remaining products constructed of cut foam will migrate to a flame retardant-free formulation Q3 of 2015.
RedThread Keilhauer All standard upholstered products.
RedThread KI, Inc The majority of KI products can be made to meet TB 117-2013 and be made flame retardant-free.  Products made for TB 117-2013 are made to also meet California requirements of SB 1019 and are labeled to note if the product does contain FRs in the fabric or foam.
RedThread National Office Furniture (Kimball) Some products.
RedThread Steelcase, Coalesse, Turnstone Qivi, Move, Cachet and Max Stacker Chairs (excluding TB-133 versions of these chairs). Goal of all upholstered furniture flame retardant-free by June 1, 2015. 
RedThread Stylex, Inc. As of May 1, 2015 whether or not the product contains fire retardant chemicals will depend on user specification. 
Moduform Moduform Some products.
New England Woodcraft New England Woodcraft Some products.

Research Resources

Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment:

Silent Spring Institute

Green Science Policy Institute/Six Classes:

Center for Environmental Health: