Fire-retardant chemicals in furniture challenged in California

by Jeremy White, Sacramento Bee

Jim Doucette served the Sacramento Fire Department for more than 30 years, and he understood the perils of the job when he accepted it. But there was one hazard he did not anticipate: the effects of burning toxic chemicals embedded in furniture.

“We became firefighters knowing the dangers involved,” Doucette said at a Department of Consumer Affairs hearing on Tuesday. “But none of us thought we would be exposed to something that has no purpose.”

Doucette was referring to flame-retardant chemicals that furniture makers have for years incorporated into their products as a safeguard against blazes spreading. Fire experts and health advocates say those chemicals are endangering public health, and a proposed state rule change could lead California furniture makers to stop selling products containing the chemically treated foam.

Under the current rules, furniture has to pass a safety test that involves being exposed to an open flame. The updated rules would change the standard to enduring “smoldering fires.” Those are the types of flames – like those contained in a burning cigarette or an overheated electrical cord – that account for the vast majority of home fires. As a result, furniture makers would no longer need to employ the fire-suppressing chemicals they used to pass the open flame test.

The chemical industry has fought the changes, saying lowered standards would put people in danger.

John McCormack, who was a scientist at the California Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation and now is a consultant to the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, an advocacy group made up of chemical companies, acknowledged that open flames cause a small proportion of fires. But he said their potential for destruction should not be discounted.

“The proposal does not address the full range of fire scenarios possible in residential furniture and thus does not meet the governor’s mandate for safer furniture,” McCormack said at the hearing.

McCormack suggested that political considerations were overriding public safety.

“The process we’re involved in now is hearing one side of the story,” McCormack said on Tuesday. “The balance … needs to be between fire hazards and environmental hazards.”

Those environmental hazards include heightened risk for cancer, developmental issues such as lower IQs in children who have been exposed to flame-retardant chemicals, and reproductive issues, according to Myrto Petreas, a research scientist with the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Studies have shown that California children have been exposed to elevated levels of flame-retardant chemicals, Petreas added. When the chemicals filter out of furniture, they enter dust that then passes into the bodies of children who are playing on the floor and putting things in their mouths.

“The problem is these chemicals escape,” Petreas said. “They don’t stay put in the sofa or the carpet padding, but they come out in the dust.”

There is also evidence that the chemicals don’t effectively slow the spread of fire. And they may actually be endangering firefighters by thickening the choking fumes that fires produce.

“Our view is that the fire retardants that are currently used in furniture don’t retard fires nearly as well as they ought to, but they do release a whole lot of nasty toxins into the air,” said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for California Professional Firefighters.

Attempts to change furniture fire-testing rules through the Legislature have foundered. Advocates say they have since gained a valuable ally in Gov. Jerry Brown, who in June directed state regulators to work on “reducing and eliminating – wherever possible – dangerous chemicals” in furniture.

“The Legislature is not capable of overcoming the intimidation tactics of the flame-retardant chemical industry,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, which sponsored legislation. But since the rule change is going through a government agency rather than the Legislature, Holober said, the prospects for success are better.

Tuesday marked the end of the public comment period for the proposed rule changes, during which the Department of Consumer Affairs received more than 30,000 comments. There will be time to make technical changes and another public comment period before the proposal goes before the Office of Administrative Law for approval.

“The likelihood is we’ll need to fiddle around the margins to tweak it a little bit but there won’t be any wholesale changes,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs.

If the changes take effect, it could have national repercussions. In the absence of federal guidelines about flammability-testing furniture, California has become the de facto standard-setter. If California adopts the new rules, businesses across the country would be compelled to change or risk losing out on the vast California market.

“Even if we ship it out of state we’ll build to the California standard, and I’m sure people who ship into the state of California, and I imagine the furniture they ship around the country, they’ll build to the California standard,” said Ben Nielsen, a board member of the California Furniture Manufacturers Association.

“I think we’ve always been the leader in a lot of issues,” Nielsen added, “and I think this is one we’ll also be the leader of.”