California pushes rule banning toxic flame retardants

by Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune

California officials vowed Tuesday to move forward on a new fire safety rule that could eliminate the use of toxic flame retardants in household furniture and baby products sold nationwide.

At a public hearing on the proposed standard, what was most striking was what didn’t happen. Unlike previous forums on the issue, no witnesses for the chemical industry presented dramatic testimony about children dying in fires or videos of couches engulfed in flames.

Instead, a single consultant for a group representing the manufacturers of flame retardants disputed technical details of the proposal and said it would not adequately protect people from furniture fires.

The proposed changes would require upholstery fabric to resist cigarettes and other smoldering items ‘ the biggest cause of furniture fires. California currently requires the foam cushioning underneath to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds, a standard manufacturers typically meet by adding flame-retardant chemicals to furniture sold nationwide.

The rule also has been applied to baby products such as diaper-changing pads, highchairs and nursery rockers.

California announced last year that it would overhaul its 38-year-old flammability rule after a Tribune investigative series documented how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive, decadeslong campaign to promote the use of flame retardants, even though government and independent research has found the chemicals do not provide meaningful protection from furniture fires.

If the state adopts the changes later this year, scores of new household products might soon be free of flame retardants linked to cancer and other health problems. Studies show the chemicals migrate out of products into household dust ingested by people, especially young children.

Researchers say California’s current rule has created the worst of both possible worlds: enough chemicals in furniture to pose health risks but not enough to limit fires.

"There’s probably no reasonable way to prevent all fires unless we ban smoking, candles and open flames," said Donald Lucas, a retired fire expert at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who testified in favor of the proposed changes. "However, what we can do is develop standards that reduce fire risks in such a way that the expected benefits have a reasonable relationship to the costs."

Tonya Blood, chief of the California agency that oversees the furniture flammability rule, said the smolder standard likely will be tweaked in response to public comments and would not take effect until this fall at the earliest. Manufacturers would not be required to comply until July 2014.

A now-shuttered front group for the largest manufacturers of flame retardants ‘ the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute ‘ successfully fought previous efforts by state lawmakers to change the California standard.

The industry’s star witness, burn surgeon Dr. David Heimbach, testified about babies who burned to death in fires started by candles. But the Tribune series proved that the babies he described didn’t exist.

Testifying for the industry Tuesday was John A. McCormack, a former California official who worked for the agency that oversees the current standard and now is a paid witness for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, an arm of the American Chemistry Council.

Any questions about the safety of flame retardants, McCormack said, should be addressed by federal officials or a California agency that studies toxic chemicals.

"The open flame test of the current standard needs to be maintained and strengthened, not eliminated," he said. "While the number of furniture fires from open flame ignitions is lower than from smoldering sources, these fires are still occurring."

A representative of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission took no position on California’s proposed smolder standard but testified that a separate rule might be needed to address fires started by small, open flames.

"We are not here today to comment pro or con on California’s proposal," Robert "Jay" Howell, the safety commission’s deputy executive director for safety operations, said in an interview. "We are not going to interfere in any state actions."

California is planning to conduct a study of furniture fires started by open flames before deciding whether another standard is necessary.

"Families should not have to wait for improved fire safety," said Judy Levin of the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit group that supports the current proposal. "And they shouldn’t have to endure these toxic chemicals any longer."