Toxic Food and Children’s Furniture Bills Advance in Senate (SB 443 and SB 772)

by Richard Holober, Executive Director, Consumer Federation of California

SB 443 (Pavley) and SB 772 (Leno)which control exposure to toxic chemicals, passed hurdles in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee, respectively, on Tuesday April 28.

Senate Bill 443 (Pavley) – sponsored by the Consumer Federation of California and the Service Employees International Union – would require state environmental health regulators to assess the health risks that toxic chemicals in commercial cleaning products in use in supermarkets pose to janitors and other workers who handle these chemicals and to consumers who ingest food that may be contaminated by exposure in supermarket display areas.

SB 443 helps to fill a gap in food safety regulations. California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation controls toxic exposures in the fields, and monitors the persistence of residues to assure that no pesticides are present when food is offered for sale.  These and other regulations don’t prevent new toxic exposures after food reaches the supermarket.

Industrial strength cleaning chemicals in everyday use in supermarkets include 2-butoxyethanol, a carcinogen that causes liver and kidney damage. Other supermarket cleaning products contain monoethanolamine, zinc and other chemicals that are corrosive, cause irritation to eyes, rashes and serious burns when they contact skin, or produce shortness of breath and headaches that can last for days. A study found that six percent of the nation’s four million janitors are injured each year by exposure to cleaning products.

Little is known about the effects that these toxic products have on consumers who purchase and eat food that may have had exposure through spills in storage areas or by airborne contamination in display areas including produce aisles and deli counters. 

SB 443 requires the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to conduct a risk assessment to determine the toxicity of cleaning products to supermarket workers, janitors, consumers and the environment. Under SB 443, OEHHA shall inform the supermarket of its assessments regarding potential harm posed by these products, and recommend steps to mitigate this harm, including identifying alternative "green" products that do not harm workers, consumers or the environment.

Precedents for SB 443 are in place in other jurisdictions. New York, Illinois and Maine have instituted "green cleaning regulations" for public schools to protect children, teachers, classified employees and members of the public from toxic cleaning products.

At the Senate Committee hearing, Allen Davenport of SEIU and I testified in favor of the bill.  Janitors who have suffered respiratory harm and skin burns waited for four hours to testify, but had to leave for work before the bill was heard. Environment California and the California Labor Federation added their support. The Consumer Products Specialties Association and the California Grocers Association testified against the bill.

SB 443 was approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, with Senate Democrats Joe Simitian, Ellen Corbett, Loni Hancock, Alan Lowenthal and Fran Pavley voting Aye and Republicans George Runner and Roy Ashburn voting No.

Senate Bill 772 (Leno) would ban the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in juvenile furniture used by children age six or younger. The bill is needed because California adopted a uniquely misguided fire prevention regulation that loads furniture and mattresses sold in our state with highly toxic halogenated fire retardant chemicals (PDBEs and related chemicals) that are banned in the European Union and eleven other states. Brominated and chlorinated fire retardants are associated with cancer, birth defects, thyroid disruption, hearing deficits, learning disorders such as ADHD, and mental retardation. 

Fire retardant chemicals migrate from furniture into the dust in the air in our homes and from there into our bodies. These brominated and chlorinated chemicals are related to TRIS, a fire retardant once used in children’s pajamas, that was banned by federal authorities in 1977 as a carcinogen.

Remarkably, three decades after the TRIS ban, this toxin and related chemicals are present in high concentrations in all California furniture, including cribs, car seats, strollers, bassinets and other products that come into direct contact with the mouths and airways of young children.

One recent study found that the dust in California homes had 4 to 10 times higher levels of PDBEs than other states, and 200 times higher level compared to homes in the European Union. Studies have found elevated PDBE levels in the breast milk of nursing mothers, and unusually high levels in the blood of infants and babies.

Brominated chemicals manufacturers spent nine million dollars in 2007 and 2008 to defeat AB 706 (Leno), which would have banned these toxic chemicals in our furniture. The industry sent hundreds of thousands of mailers to voters with photos of firefighters carrying infants from burning homes, under headlines screaming ‘A Tragic Mistake’ which raised fears that kids would die if we didn’t lobby our lawmakers to keep exposing them to these toxics.

In fact, the California Professional Firefighters supported AB 706. Fire safety measures in recent decades, including smoke alarm ordinances and mandating fire safe cigarettes that extinguish instead of smoldering when a smoker stops puffing away, have significantly reduced the incidence of home fire fatalities.

Smoker negligence, including dozing off while a cigarette is lighted, constitute the number one cause of fire deaths in the US.  Since infants and toddlers don’t smoke, it makes little sense to load furniture designed for their use with dangerous chemicals. Senator Leno cited a letter from the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission that found zero incidents of fire deaths caused by juvenile furnishings that caught on fire.

SB 772 strikes a balance between children’s health and any legitimate fire safety problem: it allows California’s Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to require fire retardants in any juvenile product should the Bureau find that they are needed to protect children from an actual fire hazard.

Friends of the Earth/Blue Water Network is the sponsor of SB 772. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth, testified on the bill, along with Janina Pawlowski, a concerned parent. Additional testimony in support was provided by Environmental Working Group, MOMS Rising, NAACP, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, and Consumer Federation of California.

Citizens for Fire Safety, a lobbying group funded by bromine chemical manufacturers, spoke in opposition to the bill.

The Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee OKed SB 772 on a 6 to 2 vote. Democrats Gloria Negrete McLeod, Ellen Corbett, Jenny Oropeza, Gloria Romero and Leland Yee and Republican Sam Aanestad voted Aye.  Democrat Lou Correa and Republican Mimi Walters voted No. Democrat Dean Florez and Republican Mark Wyland abstained, which is the same as voting No.

SB 443 and SB 772 will be heard next in the Senate Appropriations Committee.