The poison in your sofa

Pub date August 14, 2007
WriterMark Leno
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION If your sofa was purchased in California after 1975, chances are its interior foam and cushions contain either brominated or chlorinated fire retardants. These toxic chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, reproductive problems, learning disabilities, and thyroid disease in laboratory animals and house cats. At the same time, these chemicals are climbing the food chain in increasing concentrations and are found in fish, harbor seals in San Francisco Bay, polar bears, bird eggs, and the animal at the very top of the food chain — breast-fed human babies.

A little-known California regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117 requires that the polyurethane foam in furniture withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. This 30-year-old regulation is well intended, and upholstered furniture fires are a serious concern. However, since 1975 no other jurisdiction in the world has followed California’s lead, and other states have achieved similar or greater reductions in fire-related deaths without this standard.

Because brominated and chlorinated fire retardants don’t react chemically with foam, their molecules have a tendency to attach to dust particles in furniture. Each time someone sits on a sofa cushion, the dust particles escape into the air and can be inhaled or settle on the floor, where toddlers and house cats live and play.

These fire-retardant molecules mimic thyroid hormone, which in pregnant women regulates the sex and brain development of the unborn child. This mimicking is called endocrine disruption, and brominated and chlorinated fire retardants in even infinitesimal amounts can cause harm to human and animal health through this process.

Many national furniture manufacturers distribute only California-compliant furniture, which means that up to 10 percent by weight of foam cushions are composed of toxic chemicals. California’s standard is poisoning the whole nation, one sofa at a time.

The good news is that there are safer chemical and construction-based alternatives already in the marketplace that can provide an equivalent level of fire safety without the use of brominated and chlorinated fire retardants. The institutional-furniture industry and the mattress industry already comply with tough fire standards and do so without the use of these toxic chemicals.

Residential-furniture manufacturers could do so as well, except that state law and TB 117 prevent it. That’s why I have authored Assembly Bill 706, which would modify our outdated foam test. A modern residential-furniture standard, such as the one developed in California for mattresses, should address how the various components of furniture can together achieve equal or better fire safety without using the most toxic fire retardants.

AB 706 would establish a comprehensive process for weighing the issues of fire safety and chemical exposures. It would rightly rest the responsibility for assessing toxicity with state toxicologists, require the fire-retardant industry to prove that its products are safe, and leave the final decision on whether to prohibit a particular chemical to the state’s fire-safety scientists.

Soon the decision of whether California will continue to poison our kids and the rest of the nation will be made by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus far, state agencies have been directed from the top to oppose AB 706. The question for Gov. Schwarzenegger is, how loudly must our babies cry before toxic, cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are removed from our furniture?<\!s>*

Mark Leno

Mark Leno represents San Francisco in the State Assembly.