Take Toxics Out of Our Furniture

Californians are exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in our homes, thanks to a 37 year old state furniture regulation.  While the regulation never served its intended goal of reducing fires in our homes, its legacy of toxic harm lives on.   

In May 2012, a remarkable investigative series in the Chicago Tribune exposed decades of lies, coercion and influence peddling by flame retardant manufacturers.  The report describes how a chemical industry front group paid a medical school professor to travel to Sacramento to testify on two separate occasions before the state legislature. This burn doctor described in vivid detail how he held in his hands a dying seven week old infant who was horribly burned when a pillow she was lying on burst into flames when a candle ignited it.  He lectured lawmakers that the pillow was not chemically treated, and warned that changing the California regulation would only lead to more tragic deaths. 

There was one problem with the doctor’s heart-wrenching story – he made it up.

Pressed by reporters, the doctor admitted that his testimony was a work of fiction. He said it was ‘an anecdotal story rather than anything I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.’

For nearly four decades, chemical manufacturers have reaped billions in profits at our expense. Industry-funded front groups spent $23 million in campaign contributions and political donations in California alone in the past five years – stopping five separate attempts to change this dangerous toxic regulation.

With the chemical industry’s lies exposed, it is time for the Jerry Brown Administration to act.

The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has drafted a new standard  that would stop the spread of home fires without the use of toxic halogenated chemicals. Unfortunately, the chemical industry’s corrosive influence peddling has also immobilized the Obama administration. Four years after issuing the draft standard, the CPSC is frozen in inaction. 

Technical Bulletin 117

Thirty seven years ago, the California Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, adopted a regulation, known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). It was a misguided attempt to prevent fires because it failed to address the actual causes of fire ignition and spread. Under TB 117, upholstered furniture sold in California must pass a test in which the cushion is cut open and its interior foam or filling withstands exposure to a flame from a gas burner or similar fire source for twelve seconds without igniting.

Manufacturers comply with TB 117 by saturating upholstered furniture with toxic brominated or chlorinated chemicals. These chemicals are similar to TRIS, a fire retardant used in children’s pajamas until it was eliminated in the US as a carcinogen in 1977. 

Today, chemical cousins to TRIS saturate the cushions of our chairs, couches, and other upholstered furniture.  The chemicals don’t stay contained inside the furniture. They migrate into the dust in the air in our homes and from there into our bodies. Babies ingest the chemicals when they chew or suck on their bassinets and other furniture. 

Health effects of TB 117’s toxic flame retardants

Recent studies have found these chlorinated and brominated chemicals at extremely elevated rates in the blood streams of pregnant California women, and in the blood streams of California toddlers.

In both cases concentration levels are many times higher than in studies conducted in Europe and other countries that have restricted their use. 

Numerous scientific studies have linked halogenated fire retardant chemicals to learning disorders, decreased fertility, thyroid disorders and other harm. 

A recent UC Davis study demonstrated the threat these chemicals pose to children ‘ including autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities. 

There might be an argument for tolerating these health hazards if TB 117 was effective in preventing deaths from house fires. It isn’t.

The rates of fire deaths have declined over recent decades ‘ not because of TB 117, but because of other new laws that help prevent the ignition and the spread of fires. Laws requiring self-extinguishing cigarettes, which cut the risk of ignition from negligent smoking, as well as lower smoking rates and building regulations that require safer electrical wiring and use of smoke detectors and residential sprinklers have produced the decrease in fire deaths.  In fact, states with no furniture flammability standard have seen a more rapid decline than we’ve experienced in California under TB 117.

The evidence hasn’t deterred toxics manufacturers from using every means available to preserve a chemical industry cash cow, TB 117.  Toxics manufacturers stopped one bill from winning approval in the state legislature by flooding voters’ mailboxes with industry-funded brochures featuring a firefighter carrying a baby from a burning home, alongside a dire warning to call your legislator and make sure he or she didn’t make a tragic mistake by voting to change TB 117.

Firefighters oppose TB 117

These brochures forgot to mention that the California Professional Firefighters wants to get rid of TB 117.  First responders bare the brunt of occupational exposure to dioxin and furan, which are released when furniture loaded with fire retardants smolder in a house fire. Dioxin and furan are linked to firefighters’ elevated rates of multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate and testicular cancer.

California can protect residents from fires by adopting an alternative safety standard that would ensure that the furniture’s fabric lining resists igniting when in contact with a smoldering object. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has drafted this standard. It more closely models the way fires actually spread.  Furniture manufacturers can comply with this standard by using fire resistant fabric covers, or by adding fire resistant barriers between the cover and the foam stuffing.

California should adopt a new non-toxic fire safety regulation

A broad coalition of consumer groups, firefighters, environmental organizations, scientists, labor unions, mothers and health professionals is calling on the Jerry Brown Administration to adopt a modern furniture flammability standard that would protect us from fires without loading our homes with harmful chemicals.

California’s regulatory agency has the authority ‘ and the duty – to review the scores of peer reviewed academic studies linking fire retardant chemicals to cancer and other health effects. It should examine the statistical data on the causation of home fires. It should field test the efficacy of the proposed alternative safety regulation, using the Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation’s fire testing facility in Sacramento.

We are confident that if the state agency with the responsibility to keep us safe in our homes did its job, an objective, evidence-based review will lead to the replacement of TB 117 with a non-toxic alternative. The first step is to free regulators from the heavy hand of the chemical industry. It’s time for California to act on this vital health concern.