Patchwork of bills cover flame retardants

by Stephanie Lee, San Francisco Chronicle

Couches or car seats free of toxic flame retardants may soon be available, but you might have to pay more for them.

That’s one possible outcome of an ongoing nationwide debate over how to reduce the chemicals, which for three decades have permeated the foam in furniture and children’s products.

In recent years, many of those chemical compounds, which are intended to slow down fires, have been linked to obesity, infertility, cancer and other health conditions. Now policymakers, industry leaders and consumer advocates are battling over which chemicals should be allowed to remain in consumer goods as they seek a balance between fire-safe products and the need for a toxicant-free environment.

Bills that would ban flame retardants in upholstered furniture or children’s items are being floated in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington. California, where critics say a stringent 1975 law started the proliferation of flame retardants in products nationwide, is also moving away from the chemicals.

One goal, mix of laws

While the states have similar goals, each is cracking down on chemicals in a slightly different way. Some manufacturers worry they could end up spending more to meet a confusing patchwork of state rules – and passing the costs on to customers.

"You may have to develop separate production lines for states to comply with all requirements and make sure one type of foam has a chemical that’s not going into Connecticut, for example, or Illinois," said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade group that represents some 200 furniture makers and importers.

"It would certainly create some additional manufacturing burdens," he said, "and it could potentially add to the costs."

Proponents of the bills say states are stepping up to plug a hole created by the national Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which they say fails to screen thousands of harmful compounds. The Safe Chemicals Act, first introduced in 2005, would require the chemical industry to provide information on the health and environmental safety of chemicals in order for them to enter or stay on the market.

The bill failed to pass last year, but its lead sponsor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., intends to reintroduce it in the coming weeks.

For now, the states are "filling a vacuum that is left because the federal system isn’t working," said Sarah Doll, the national director of Safer States, a coalition of environmental health advocates that is backing the new wave of bills.

Leading the way

In the absence of a strong national standard, states and individuals can push manufacturers to find safer alternative chemicals for their products, Doll said. To appease customers a few years ago, Doll noted, companies voluntarily began making bottles without Bisphenol-A, a chemical used in hard plastics that turned out to be an endocrine disruptor. Last year, the federal government banned use of the chemical in baby bottles.

This year, Massachusetts has proposed banning the sale of products for children up to age 12 and residential furniture with two classes of flame retardants: chlorinated Tris and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. These have been collectively linked to hormone disruption, cancer, infertility and lowered IQs in children. Under the proposed law, they couldn’t be replaced with similarly harmful chemicals.

Washington is also seeking to prohibit chlorinated Tris in baby products and furniture, having outlawed PBDEs five years ago. Connecticut is considering a ban on chlorinated Tris – but only in items marketed to toddlers under age 4.

The American Chemistry Council is against these bills. The trade group, which has lobbied legislators for decades on behalf of the powerful chemical industry, said state bans "are not necessary and often in conflict with other jurisdictions."

Industry worried

The varying proposals also concern Julie Vallese, managing director of public and government affairs at the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, which represents 250 companies that make cribs, car seats, bedding and other items.

"One of the things when it comes to being a manufacturer is that uniform and universal regulations are the most ideal because in a country like the United States, you don’t manufacture products per state," she said. "It would be … very costly if you had to do it that way."

Vallese said she prefers a national standard, such as the Safe Chemicals Act, for that reason. And in many ways, California sets that standard.

In 1975, the state began requiring polyurethane foam in upholstered residential furniture and some children’s products to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds.

The California law does not require manufacturers to add chemicals to the foam, but many used them to meet the standard and ensure they would not lose California’s outsized market. The result is that the chemicals are in products throughout the nation.

A state agency recently said it intends to undo the law, Technical Bulletin 117, so as to encourage companies to eliminate the flame retardants. Couches and car seats without the chemicals could be available, statewide and nationwide, as early as summer 2014.

Even if California ends up setting the de facto standard, Doll said, other states’ efforts won’t have been wasted.

"The moment is ripening for federal reform," she said, "and it’s no small response to what’s happening in the states."