GREEN CITY Profit-driven companies are fighting an expensive and underhanded battle to keep their toxic fire retardants in California's furniture.
Senate Bill 772, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to exempt certain children's furniture from California's fire code, thereby allowing manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic fire retardants and giving consumers the opportunity to raise their babies around chemical-free furniture. But lobbying efforts last week stalled the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it will be reconsidered Aug. 26.
California's onerous standards for fire safety are unique. According to Technical Bulletin 117, established by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings, all furniture manufactured in California must be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.
While there are other methods that meet California's standards, such as barriers and safer chemicals, the cheapest way for manufacturers to meet TB 117 is to pour toxic, halogenated chemicals that act as fire retardants into all upholstered furniture.
This means that fire retardants are put in most things in your house your couch, your mattress, your baby's pillows and strollers. The companies producing the fire retardants are huge multinational corporations -- Albermarle, Chemtura, ICL Industrial Corp. and Tosoh -- spending millions on lobbying and in drafting nonprofit fronts.
The fire retardants go by a variety of technical names: polybrominated diphenyl ether, halogenated substances, TRIS, BFRs, CFRs ... the list goes on. That chemical family is halogenated chemicals. The only one that is legal in all consumer products is decabrominated diphenyl ether, referred to as DECA. Some of the chemicals that are known to be toxic are only banned from certain products, such as pajamas in the case of TRIS, but are still being poured into everyting from electronics to clothing to upholstery.
SB 772 specifically focuses on four pieces of children's furniture. After reviewing years of data, the Bureau of Home Furnishings found that bassinets, nursing pillows, strollers, and infant pillows have never caused fire causality. Leno contends, "There is no need to pour chemicals into products that are not fire risks."
Numerous studies and agencies, including the National Toxicology Program and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have linked halogenated chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, ADHD, child autism, and long list of other ailments. Some, like Seth Jacobson, spokesperson for Citizens for Fire Safety, argue that the studies are exaggerated and "not scientifically valid".
Any manifestation of these diseases may take years to see or are complicated by other factors, making correlations to specific chemicals difficult to pinpoint. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth believes that this is a comparable scenario to the asbestos crisis of the 1980s. Asbestos was a common household chemical long suspected of toxicity and in 1989, after numerous health and legal battles, the EPA banned it. Decades later the federal government is still spending billions in liability lawsuits affecting more than 600,000 people.
Another issue is bioaccumulation these chemicals don't stay put. According to Leno, these chemicals don't bind to materials. Instead they fall to the floor and become part of dust. In 2006, the California EPA reported that "PBDEs have been measured in house and office dust, indoor air, plant and animal-based foods, terrestrial and marine animals, and in human breast milk, blood, and fat."
In 2008, scientists from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the Silent Spring Institute found that the levels of PBDEs in Californians are twice as high as other U.S. regions.