Californians should be doing a slow burn on toxic flame retardants

by Editorial, San Jose Mercury News

Smoke should be pouring out of Californians’ ears since the recent, damning revelations about flame retardants that the chemical industry uses in sofas and easy chairs. Reputable scientists say the concoctions are highly toxic and dangerous to people, especially children.

But they stop fires, right? Wrong. They’re largely ineffective, especially against the No. 1 cause of fire-related deaths in homes — smoldering cigarettes. (Fire deaths: another reason voters should have approved Proposition 29 by a landslide this month to cut down on smoking. Don’t get us started.)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday demanded an overhaul of the state’s decades-old flame retardant standards. A federal solution would be far better, but don’t hold your breath for Congress to act. California as usual needs to lead the way.

The Legislature should require that flame retardant products be proven safe and effective before they can be sold. Hearings will begin Tuesday.

An investigation by the Chicago Tribune exposed a "deceptive, decades-long campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries" to exploit flammability standards. A case in point: California’s standards haven’t been updated since 1975.

The Tribune found that the two pounds of flame retardants typically used in a sofa escape into the air and settle in dust in homes, especially on the floors, where children play. Alarming amounts are being detected not only in homes around the nation but
also in wildlife. Because deer don’t buy recliners, it’s safe to assume the chemicals are spreading widely in nature.

Chemicals the Tribune identified in flame retardants include chlorinated tris, which clothing manufacturers voluntarily stopped using in children’s pajamas about 30 years ago. Ingredients in the products have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and developmental and neurological issues.

Manufacturers today don’t have to prove that a chemical is safe. They don’t even have to test for health risks, but if they do, they must turn the results over to the Environmental Protection Agency — a system that actually discourages testing. The burden of proof is on the EPA, but manufacturers’ precise formulas for these products can remain a secret. Federal action is predictably rare.

How does this all trace back to our friends in the tobacco industry? California passed regulations for furniture standards in part because tobacco companies didn’t want to have to create a self-extinguishing cigarette. And because big tobacco didn’t want any hint that its products were a fire hazard, state regulations specify that flame retardants be able to resist a "candlelight" flame for 12 seconds. There’s no standard for cigarettes, even though they are the higher risk.

Now that the Tribune’s credible report has laid out the facts, California can’t ignore them. It has to update its fire safety standards — this time placing people’s safety above chemical industry and big tobacco profits.