No couch potato

Governor takes swift action against toxic chemicals in furniture

Gov. Jerry Brown douses furniture makers who use toxic flame retardants.

Gov. Jerry Brown douses furniture makers who use toxic flame retardants.

illustration by priscilla garcia

Christina Jewett is a writer for California Watch. Contact her at and read more at

Gov. Jerry Brown announced last week that he directed a state agency to change a decades-old legal provision that, in essence, forces furniture makers to pump pounds of hazardous chemicals into couches and other furniture.

Mounting research and news reports have shown that fire-retardant chemicals are linked to health risks, and that the industry that sells them has gone to great lengths to see that they are infused in furniture foam.

Brown’s order is a nod to evolving furniture-safety science that shows that fire prevention can be achieved without the use of chemicals that are connected to cancer and reproductive harm.

“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,” Brown said in a statement. “We must find better ways to meet fire-safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Brown’s order calls on the state’s consumer-safety bureau to reduce chemicals used to ensure product safety. Fire-safety authorities say there are ways to regulate the weave of fabrics and construction of products to reduce fire risk while limiting chemical use.

The new-found resolve to limit the chemicals will mark a reversal for several state agencies. State consumer-product and environmental agencies have opposed several of state Sen. Mark Leno’s efforts to limit flame-retardant chemicals in couches in 2007 through 2009.

Legislative review documents show that in 2007, both the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment opposed proposed bills that would have limited chemical use.

In 2008 and 2009, the Department of Consumer Affairs opposed two bills that would have changed the state’s fire safety standard or called for removal of flame retardants from juvenile products, such as strollers and nursing pillows.

News reports and lobbying records show that the chemical industry spent tens of millions of dollars fighting such proposed bills and have lobbied the Department of Consumer Affairs and environmental agencies.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents makers of flame retardants, has said that the chemicals are safe as used, and they play a key role in reducing fires in homes.

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, said officials are now committed to revising the provision of law that leads to the heavy use of chemicals in furniture.

“We have been looking at [the provision] for a while, so now that we have direction from the governor, we’re in a position to execute that direction quickly,” he said.

He added that the agency aims to draft a new regulation by late August.

Sarah Janssen, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, applauded the governor’s announcement. She said a mounting body of research has shown high levels of flame-fighting chemicals in Californians’ blood and linked them to reproductive and learning challenges.

“Ultimately, the signal is that we’ll be able to have couches that meet modern manufacturing and flammability standards without contaminating our homes and our bodies with toxic chemicals,” she said.

Janssen said a couch she bought in 2007 was infused with chlorinated Tris, a chemical that last year was added to the state’s list of cancer-causing substances.

Before Tris was outlawed, PBDEs, chemicals that have been linked to lower IQs in children, were banned from couches by 2003 state legislation. “We’ve replaced one bad chemical with another, again and again and again,” Janssen said.

Andrew McGuire, policy director of Green Science Policy Institute, said the next phase of work needs to examine getting the chemicals, which have been found in the bodies of whales near Alaska, out of the environment.

He said couches are dumped in landfills, and rain carries the flame-retardant chemicals into groundwater and the ocean. “I think generations are going to deal with this,” he said.

Lawmakers will discuss the chemicals during at a hearing this week.