Toxic flame retardants under fire in California

by Deborah Sullivan Brennan, San Diego Union Tribune

Shortly after taking steps to phase out toxic flame retardants from furniture and other consumer goods, California officials are looking at removing the chemicals from building insulation as well.

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB127, which directs the California State Fire Marshal to consider whether builders can meet fire safety standards without adding flame retardants to insulation.

In August a state bureau proposed new rules that could remove the chemicals from furniture upholstery, electronics and baby gear.

The new standards – proposed by the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation – would overturn a 1975 state rule that required furniture foam to withstand an open flame.

That standard led manufacturers to infuse upholstery foam with pounds of chemicals linked to health problems including infertility, cancer, hormone disruption and learning disabilities. But it didn’t reduce fire deaths, critics said. Similar chemicals are added to foam insulation to prevent fires from spreading within structures.

Under new regulations, furniture would have to pass a “smolder test,” by which upholstery must resist a burning cigarette. That test, they said, would ensure greater fire safety without the use of toxic chemicals.

In a similar effort directed at structures, the state is testing whether physical barriers – such as gypsum wallboard – can prevent fires from spreading through buildings without the addition of flame retardants to foam insulation.

In most cases, the law states, the wallboard resists fire without the use of toxic chemicals. The law asks the state to consider new standards that would eliminate the need for flame retardants.

“This starts with making sure we are protecting people against risks of fire,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. “There’s increasing evidence that this can be accomplished through different methods that do not require use of these flame retardants.”