CFC Endorses Bill to Ban Toxic Fire Retardants

by Zack Kaldveer, Consumer Federation of California

Studies show that exposure to even the lowest concentrations of certain
fire retardants can cause reproductive, developmental, neurological or
other health problems including cancer, thyroid disruption, hearing
deficits, and birth defects.

Compounds with such elements are related to PCBs, a long-lived and
potent neurotoxin banned in the United States in 1979 but still found
in the blood of anyone ever tested. Various governments, including
California and the European Union, have banned individual flame
retardants, a few of which were marketed as "safe" alternatives to

There has never been a ban of an entire class of these chemicals,
allowing manufacturers to swap a problematic compound with a chemically
related but untested one. The chemicals should be banned as a
precaution. To do otherwise risks waiting until levels in our bodies
are high enough to cause harm.

That, in many ways, is what happened with a collection of widely used
brominated flame retardants known as PBDEs, which saw production
explode after the PCB ban. PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers,
are astonishingly effective at retarding fire in foam and plastic.
Until recently, they were sold in three mixtures: Penta and Octa for
foam and upholstery ‘ including bedding; Deca for hard plastic and some

Then researchers discovered that concentrations of Penta and Octa were
doubling every few years in wildlife and nursing mothers. California
and the European Union banned them from products. The nation’s sole
manufacturer of Penta and Octa voluntarily stopped selling both
mixtures two years ago, and foam, mattress and furniture makers are
moving to other compounds ‘ some brominated, some not ‘ to meet
California’s stringent fire safety rules.

An investigation conducted two years ago by this newspaper found high
levels of Deca in a typical Berkeley family. The biggest concentration
was in the family’s youngest child, an 18-month-old son with 233 ppb
Deca in his blood. His sister had 143 ppb.

This is why CFC has endorsed Assemblyman Mark Leno’s (D-San Francisco)
Assembly Bill 706, which will ban the use of all brominated and
chlorinated fire retardants in upholstered furniture as well as bedding
products such as pillows, comforters, and mattresses.

‘California regulations shouldn’t result in kids sleeping on
pillows or playing on furniture filled with toxic chemicals that could
cause long-term damage to their health,’ said Assemblyman Mark Leno,
referring to existing and new potential regulations being developed by
the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. ‘The
types of chemicals being used today have been linked to cancer, birth
defects and reproductive difficulties. This bill creates a smarter and
improved fire-safety standard for furniture while protecting our kids,
workers, and others from potentially dangerous exposure to toxic

Biophysical chemist Arlene Blum published articles in Science
magazine in the 1970’s that contributed to the ban of two major flame
retardants used in children’s sleepwear’ brominated and chlorinated
Tris. ‘I am very concerned that the same chlorinated Tris that was
banned from children’s pajamas thirty years ago is being used today in
the foam inside furniture sold in California,’ Blum said. ‘A growing
body of research shows these flame retardants have potentially serious
and far reaching adverse health effects.’

Russell Long, Vice-President of Bluewater Network, and
co-sponsor of the legislation added, ‘Every year, millions of pounds of
toxic flame retardants are leaching into our soil and drinking water,
and accumulating in our homes and our bodies. They’ve been found in the
blood of virtually every Californian who’s been tested. It’s time to
end this dangerous contamination with smarter regulation.’

Halogenated chemicals such as brominated and chlorinated fire
retardants are pervasive and persistent in the environment, virtually
impossible for individuals to avoid exposure to, and increasingly
present in humans. Fire retardants such as PBDEs are 40 times greater
in U.S. womens’ breast milk than they were in the 1970s. Mothers pass
these chemicals on to their children during nursing.

California was the first state in the nation to ban pentaBDE
and octaBDE in 2003 and 2004. Other states followed suit, and Maine and
Washington State are expected to ban decaBDE this year. However,
regulating one chemical at a time cannot sufficiently protect human
health over the long term.

The California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation is
responsible for ensuring the fire safety of furniture and bedding;
however, they do not currently regulate the use of chemicals in these
products. Much of the furniture sold in California contains brominated
or chlorinated chemicals in amounts up to ten percent of the weight of
the foam in the furniture. Under Leno’s proposal, the Bureau will be
authorized to review health and safety data to ensure that flame
retardant chemicals used in California furniture do not pose a risk to
human health or the environment.

‘Studies have shown that infants and toddlers have much higher
levels of these chemicals than the rest of us,’ said Mary Brune,
co-founder of Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS), a co-sponsor of the
legislation. ‘Children crawl on floors and touch window sills where
they are exposed to toxic fire retardants through household dust. We
know that exposure to these chemicals can cause developmental,
behavioral, reproductive harm. Exposing children to such a risk, when
safer alternatives are available, is simply unacceptable. We must stop
the cycle of replacing one toxin with another and ban the whole class
from our furniture and bedding.’

Special Note: Read this recent expose by the San Francisco Chronicles on the increasing evidence of the danger to human health posed by PBDE’s.