Playing with fire

Chemical industry extinguishes effort to curb toxic fire retardants

State Sen. Mark Leno was thwarted in his efforts to keep toxic chemicals out of children’s pillows and furniture.

State Sen. Mark Leno was thwarted in his efforts to keep toxic chemicals out of children’s pillows and furniture.

Chemical makers are fighting an expensive political battle to keep their toxic fire retardants in California’s furniture.

Senate Bill 772, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno, would exempt certain children’s furniture from provisions of California’s fire code. The new rules would give manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic fire retardants, and give consumers the opportunity to purchase chemical-free furniture for their kids.

But lobbying efforts by the chemical industry last week extinguished the bill—at least for the rest of this year. While the bill managed to win approval in the state Senate, Leno pulled S.B. 772 from consideration by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, fearing that it didn’t have the votes to go forward.

California’s standards for fire safety are strict. 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 comply with the rules is to pour toxic, “halogenated” chemicals that act as fire retardants into all upholstered furniture.

This means that fire retardants are put into most of your household furniture—your couch, your mattress, your baby’s pillows and strollers. The companies producing the fire retardants include such multinational corporations as Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Containers.

The fire retardants go by a variety of technical names, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Some are legal for use in all consumer products. Others are known to be toxic and banned from certain products, such as pajamas, but are still poured into things as varied as electronics, clothing and upholstery.

S.B. 772 specifically focuses on four pieces of children’s furniture. After reviewing years of data, the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation found that bassinets, nursing pillows, strollers and infant pillows don’t cause fires. 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, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, child autism and a long list of other ailments.

Some, like Seth Jacobson, spokesman for chemical-industry-funded 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 the environmental group 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 the fact that these chemicals don’t stay put. According to Leno, they fall to the floor and become part of dust. In 2006, Cal/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 University and the Silent Spring Institute found that the levels of PBDEs in Californians are twice as high as other U.S. regions. Cal/EPA has reported that the highest tissue concentrations of PBDEs are found in California aquatic life, with rising levels in San Francisco Bay harbor seals. Long believes “this is one of the biggest toxic threats facing Californians today.

This is Leno’s second attempt to reduce the use of these chemicals. The first, A.B. 706, introduced last year, sought to directly ban the use of toxic fire retardants. A.B. 706 was named the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Furniture Safety and Fire Prevention Act, in memory of a 41-year-old firefighter who died of work-related, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is believed she developed the condition after breathing in dioxin (a highly toxic carcinogen) that was released from burning flame retardants. Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Maine have already passed bills banning dioxin and have started phasing it out.

Banning chemicals is hard to do. Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California says that the petrochemical industry will slightly alter a banned chemical, “sort of chasing one version after another.” In the United States, chemicals are mass-produced and distributed until they are found to be dangerous. In Europe, chemicals must be proven safe before they are sold.

The most outspoken opposition to both bills, A.B. 706 and S.B. 772, Citizens for Fire Safety, argues that fire retardants save lives. Since California established its current rules, California structure fires have dropped by about 60 percent. Records from the National Fire Protection Association show a drop of 32 percent between 1980 and 2000. Yet other states, including New York, show a drop of 40 percent without a similar fire regulation. The drop can easily be ascribed to an increase in smoke detectors, better education and more regulations on cigarettes: the No. 1 fire instigator.

Citizens for Fire Safety’s funding is suspicious. Its Web site clearly states “a portion of our funding comes from various chemical industry leaders.” Indeed, Jacobson says he has no problems accepting funding from the same companies that manufacture the chemicals in question. Leno believes Citizens for Fire Safety is a “concerted business effort to confuse the public.”

This nonprofit front is just one of the extraordinary efforts of the chemical companies to stop bills of this nature. According to Holober, the chemical companies spent between $6 million and $9 million on lobbyists and efforts to derail A.B. 706. This is the largest amount spent by a consumer-interest group in lobbying efforts, Leno and Holober said.

But Joe Kerr, president of Orange County Professional Firefighters Association Local 3631, has other objections to S.B. 772. Kerr opposes the deregulation until “all the principals are brought to the table,” he said. “Get the burn ward doctors, and the environmentalists, EPA and Mark Leno together—because there are good arguments on both sides.” In the meantime, Kerr doesn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” He also voices concern that some consumers will stop buying California products if the state’s fire standard is lowered.

Although the bill was approved by the full Senate in June, heavy lobbying efforts prevailed in the Assembly and it fell three votes short in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Not liking his chances, Leno pulled the bill from reconsideration. And the toxic fire retardants will hang around another year.