By Stephanie M. Lee

A leading manufacturer of flame retardants filed suit Thursday in an attempt to derail a new California law that seeks to keep the chemicals it makes out of upholstered furniture sold in the state.

The lawsuit filed in Sacramento by Chemtura Corp. argues that the law puts consumers at risk by changing a 4-decades-old flammability test that upholstered furniture must pass to be sold in California.

The intent of the change, which took effect this year, is to discourage furniture manufacturers from using flame retardant chemicals that have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, as well as health effects that have not yet been studied. But Chemtura says the new law will risk lives.

“If left unchallenged, California’s revised, weakened fire safety standard could tragically lead to more fires and more injuries, deaths and property damage nationwide,” said Anne Noonan, the Philadelphia company’s senior vice president of industrial engineered products.

Chemtura, the first chemical company to challenge TB-117-2013 in court, has a lot of business at stake.

Under the old law, couches and other furniture with polyurethane foam had to withstand 12 seconds of a small, open flame, akin to a candle or a match. Furniture makers weren’t required to use flame retardants but have used them to ensure they would pass the test.

Since then, independent studies have linked many flame retardants to health problems. Other research has questioned the merits of the test because small, open flames cause fewer fires involving residential furniture than smoldering cigarettes.

After a Chicago Tribune investigation in 2012 showed that chemical companies had distorted research to promote the safety of their products, scientists, regulators and advocates sought to reverse the 1975 California law that started it all.

The new law requires furniture upholstery to resist a cigarette-like smolder. Government officials and fire scientists say it will improve consumer safety and eliminate the need for flame retardants. Flame-retardant-free furniture has been trickling onto the market and will be mandatory by the beginning of 2015.

Chemtura, which filed its suit in Sacramento County Superior Court, is challenging the change by saying that the standard weakens fire safety and that the number of fires caused by small, open flames is, in fact, significant.

The law applies to any company that makes furniture to be sold in California, which has the world’s eighth-largest economy, making it a major threat to flame-retardant makers. The chemicals are lucrative: A 2011 analysis projected global revenue from flame-retardant sales would reach $5.8 billion by 2018.

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair,Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, which oversees TB-117-2013, said the agency had not seen the lawsuit, but “we stand by our regulation and we think (it meets) the mandate the department has of protecting California consumers.”

“For almost four decades, the companies that make toxic flame-retardant chemicals have repeatedly misled the public, distorted the science and engaged in tobacco-industry-style dirty-tricks campaigns to maintain sales of these harmful materials,” said Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director at the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland advocacy group.

“The lawsuit is just another effort to push their poisonous and untested products at the expense of firefighters, the public and the environment.”