Gov. Brown takes needed action on toxic flame retardants

by Editorial, Sacramento Bee

For years, the chemical industry has fought to stop statewide bans on certain toxic chemicals, arguing that such decisions are best left to federal authorities, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet the chemical industry’s credibility has been seriously undermined by a recent investigative series in the Chicago Tribune on the subject of flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products.

Among other things, the Tribune revealed that the chemical industry created a phony consumer group, Citizens for Fire Safety, to push for more flame retardant products in California and other states. The group claimed to be a coalition of fire professionals, doctors and educators, but was actually a trade group funded by companies that make flame retardants.

In California and elsewhere, this group was able to convince lawmakers that flame retardants saved lives, even though such chemicals added to furniture cushions actually provide no meaningful protection from fires, according to federal researchers and independent scientists interviewed by the Tribune.

What is known is that the most widely used chemicals are potentially dangerous ‘ linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. Studies have found that Californians have higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their blood and household air than people in other states and countries, largely because California has long-standing and sweeping standards requiring use of such chemicals.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown took an important and overdue step in changing state rules that have flowed from the chemical industry’s deception. He asked a state agency ‘ the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation ‘ to review the state’s flammability standards, which date back 37 years. The governor says he wants changes to reduce use of toxic flame retardants in products "while continuing to ensure fire safety."

It is also encouraging that other states and research institutions are taking action. New York state is moving to ban a cancer-causing retardant ‘ known as chlorinated tris, or TDCPP ‘ from pajamas and other children’s products. Meanwhile, the University of Washington has admonished one of its burn doctors, Dr. David Heimbach, who was a star witness for Citizens for Fire Safety.

In California and Alaska, Heimbach told lawmakers stories of babies suffering fatal burns on cushioning that lacked flame retardants. Yet Heimbach’s testimony was misleading, the Tribune revealed. The infants as he described them did not exist. In addition, the doctor failed to obtain permission from the university before doing consulting work for the industry front group.

The chemical industry is right ‘ federal regulation of flame retardants and other toxic chemicals is preferable to state-by-state oversight. Yet even there, the industry is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, which would give the EPA more authority to regulate chemicals and require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of products before putting them on the market. Yet the bill remains stuck in a Senate committee with little prospect of passage.

Why? Part of the reason is opposition from the American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the chemical industry.

Given the hold this industry has on Congress, governors such as Brown have little choice but to act.