California Makes a Move on Toxic Flame Retardants

Posted on 22 June 2012

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By Jenesse Miller
California League of Conservation Voters

The writing is on the wall: we're going to beat the chemical industry in California's fight over toxic flame retardants.

For years, advocates for Californians' health and environment have worked to change archaic regulations that encourage the use of highly toxic chemicals in furniture, baby products and other consumer products in the name of fire safety. The pervasive use of these chemicals has never been proven to save lives, has made home fires more dangerous for victims and firefighters, and has put millions of people who will never encounter a fire in their home at risk -- particularly young children.

The Environmental Working Group found that toddlers often have three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, and California children have some of the highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies in the world. Studies have linked exposure to these chemicals to increased risk of cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.

This week, health and environmental advocates finally had a breakthrough when Governor Jerry Brown made the following announcement:

    Governor Brown has asked the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to review the state’s four-decade-old flammability standards and recommend changes to reduce toxic flame retardants while continuing to ensure fire safety.

    “Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” said Governor Brown. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Similar to their role in the struggle over bisphenol-A (BPA), a dangerous chemical found in dozens of consumer products including baby bottles, the chemical industry has been at the heart of a deceptive and self-serving campaign to keep toxic chemicals marketed as flame retardants in California's consumer products. For years, they've hidden behind a phony consumer group that convinced lawmakers throughout the United States that, despite mounting evidence of their negative effects on human health, these chemicals needed to be added to all sorts of everyday products to protect people from dying in home fires.

They focused much of their effort on high-stakes California to preserve the decades-old rule flammability guidelines known as Technical Bulletin 117 to fuel demand for their products. The front group, "Citizens for Fire Safety," is in reality three chemical companies: Albermerle, Chemturn, and IC-Ltd Industrial Products. Over the past five years they spent a staggering $23 million on lobbying against bills introduced by state Senator Mark Leno to stop the use of chemicals marketed as flame retardants in California.

California is ground zero for their battle. The chemical makers know that if the Golden State changes the rule, it would set in motion a snowball effect with major furniture manufacturers, other states' policies, national policy and even international approaches to flame retardant chemicals. After all, California is such a large market for consumer goods that its flammability standards are followed by as many as 80-90% major furniture manufacturers.

The well-funded campaign of deceit in the name of profit by these chemical companies was recently exposed in a devastating investigative series called "Playing with Fire" by the Chicago Tribune. You really need to check it out to understand how truly disgusting the tactics employed by the industry (and Big Tobacco, which worked hard to shift the responsibility from their fire-causing products to furniture makers) have been.

Every hair on my head was standing on end by the time I finished reading the first couple of paragraphs. It describes how Dr. Heimbach, a surgeon specializing in severe burns who was paid by the industry for testimony before various state legislatures, including in California, concocted a story (which changed every time he told it) about a tiny baby dying horribly in a fire because of the absence of flame retardant chemicals in her bedding. The Tribune found that the baby didn't exist.

The series, which proved California lawmakers were deceived, may very well have provided Governor Brown an incentive to make the move toward overhauling the state's flammability standards.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

         Changing the obscure rule, known as Technical Bulletin 117, would be the most significant step any state has taken to reduce the use of flame retardants that scientists say are building up in people's bodies and in the environment around the globe.

         Scientists know that flame retardants migrate from products and settle in dust. That's why toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels than their parents. Expectant mothers also can unwittingly pass the chemicals to their children; the typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.

It's great news that California may be on the cusp of shutting off the flow of these chemicals into consumer products here and around the country, but it's frightening to think about the number of existing couches (just to take one example) that will sit spewing toxic dust in our homes and ultimately may be sold second-hand to folks who can't afford new products. As noted by a coalition of diverse groups working on this issue, the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, this is a social justice issue that will take many years to fully address, and we're just getting started by revising guidelines that never protected anyone from fires but made all of our homes more dangerous.

But it ain't over 'til it's over. Next week, on June 26th, there will be an oversight hearing by the California State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials (ESTM) on California’s furniture flammability requirements. According to an announcement by the committee, witnesses "will include the Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation; the Department of Public Health; and representatives from the firefighter, public health, fire safety, academic, environmental and regulated communities."

The hearing provides an opportunity for lawmakers who previously voted against bills to stop the use of these toxic chemicals to show up, consider factual testimony rather than lies, and support our state's move in the right direction. I hope you'll encourage your representatives to attend.


Jenesse Miller is the Communications Director for the California League of Conservation Voters, where this article originally appeared.