Calif. Bill Would Smoke Out Safety, End Use of Toxic Flame Retardants

by Ngoc Nguyen, New America Media

Where there’s smoke ‘ fire is still likely after California’s out-dated 12-second rule. And toxic flame retardants in your bed or couch may harm your family anyhow.

Those worrisome factors are behind a bill introduced Friday by California Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, seeking to change the state’s fire-safety testing standards for furniture.

Currently, furniture makers have to use stuffing and foams treated with flame retardants to meet California’s current rule. Under an obscure state law known as Technical Bulletin 117, furniture must withstand being ignited by on open flame for 12 seconds, even though fire-safety experts have determined that even a smoldering cigarette taking more than 12 ticks of the clock can set furniture ablaze.

What’s worse, the only way for manufacturers to meet the 12-second requirement is to permeate their products with toxic flame inhibitors, according to a growing body of research. Studies link those chemicals to cancer, infertility, miscarriage and preterm birth, lower IQs and learning disabilities in children.

California has banned one widely used flame retardant (PBDE) and added another one (chlorinated Tris) to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. Under Proposition 65, passed in 1986, manufacturers must post warnings about any chemical on the list and may be sued for violations.

The Smolder Test

‘If the fire doesn’t get you, the chemicals will,’ said Mitchell in an e-mail. ‘California needs to come into the 21st century with safety standards that weed out retardants that won’t save you from a fire, but are toxic [They are] opposed by everybody who’s looked at the impacts, and it is bad for California’s furniture market to boot.’

Mitchell’s bill, AB 2197, replaces the open-flame flammability test with a ‘smolder test’ that is more in line with the pending federal consumer products safety standard. Fire-safety advocates say the current test is outmoded and fails to stop many fires that ignite after the current 12-second flame-test period.

The change means that furniture could meet the flammability standard by withstanding an ignition test rather than a small-flame test, which is more apropos of real-world conditions, said Andrew McGuire, policy director of the Green Science Policy Institute, part of a statewide coalition advocating for the new measure.

An ignition test simulates one of the most common sources of household fires ‘ a burning cigarette smoldering on a couch or bed, for example. In this case, the fabric on the sofa catches fire before the foam, so changing to less flamable fabric is key.

McGuire, a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant recipient, says plenty of alternatives are available. He estimated that 12-to-15 percent of fabrics in the United States would not pass a smolder test. In this case, products makers could opt for a different material, such as leather, or add a protective barrier beneath the fabric.

The main issue he said, is how testing is done. Passing an open-flame test requires adding chemicals, McGuire said. But furniture items can now pass 85 percent of ignition, or smolder tests ‘without any chemicals,’ he stressed.

Mitchell’s bill would also apply to some children’s products, which are classified as furniture, according to the Green Science Policy Institute’s Arlene Blum. California has exempted nursing pillows, baby carriers and strollers from TB 117’s 12-second rule.

If Mitchell’s bill passes, furniture makers would have to adopt the new standard by September 2013.

Bob Leudeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, said his group has not yet taken a position on the bill. His group and others have 30 days to comment or propose amendments to the legislation.

Leudeka said enhancing the smolder requirement would address the majority of household fires involving upholstered furniture. That, he emphasized, ‘is the right direction to go.’ He added that the change would not affect foam makers economically.

Two factors in California ‘ the declining number of adult smokers and the introduction of fire-safe cigarettes, McGuire said — have contributed to a big drop in household fires, the majority of which begin with burning cigarettes.

Supporters of the bill have also questioned the effectiveness of using flame retardants to prevent household fires.

Vytenis Babrauskas, an independent fire-safety scientist said tests by the furniture industry and then vetted by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission show California’s present regulation does not prevent small flames from igniting furniture.

‘They documented it doesn’t do what it claims to do,’ he said. He continued, ‘It’s worse than a joke–a joke would be entertaining. This is very detrimental.’

High Chemical Levels in Californians

Flame retardants aren’t just sealed in furniture. The chemicals leach out into the environment and have been found in household dust, breast milk and marine mammals.

As a result of California’s fire safety policy, state residents have some of the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies.

The elevated levels of these chemicals in California residents, coupled with ‘research showing that these chemicals can interfere with hormone action and brain function,’ warrant concern and policies that would support very conservative use of these chemicals, said Ami Zota, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

Zota’s research has found even higher levels of flame retardants among ethnic communities and people with low income.

‘The highest levels of PDBEs in household dust were found in lower-income [California] communities,’ such as Richmond, Oakland and Salinas, she said.

Zota speculated that second-hand or cheaply made furniture may release more of the chemicals. Also, poor home ventilation could play a role in the higher levels among low-income populations.

She studied flame retardants and effects on thyroid function in pregnant women who sought care at San Francisco General Hospital, a population that tends to be ethnically-diverse and low-income.

The pregnant women she researched in San Francisco showed higher exposure to PDBEs than pregnant women in other studies, such as Mexican immigrants, from Salinas Valley, Calif., a nationally representative sample of pregnant women in the United States and various populations in Europe and Asia.

‘Pregnant women are more vulnerable to thyroid toxicants,’ she said. ‘Thyroid levels during early pregnancy affect the brain of a developing fetus and play a role in pregnancy complications, [such as] miscarriage and pre-term delivery.’

A flame retardant that was banned by the state turned up in many of the pregnant women in Zota’s study, suggesting the chemicals will be around for a long time, even if they are phased out by a new furniture flammability standard.

‘Once we stop the future production [of furniture with flame retardants], then we have the bigger problem: How to get rid of this stuff and dispose of it,’ said McGuire of the Green Science Policy Institute.

‘We’re already experiencing the problems with cleaning up asbestos, it’s a huge problem, very costly and takes decades. This is going to be asbestos on steroids–cleaning it up. It’s so much more omnipresent.’