GREEN CITY Profit-driven companies are fighting an expensive and underhanded battle to keep their toxic fire retardants in California’s furniture.
Senate Bill 772, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to exempt certain children’s furniture from California’s fire code, thereby allowing manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic fire retardants and giving consumers the opportunity to raise their babies around chemical-free furniture. But lobbying efforts last week stalled the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it will be reconsidered Aug. 26.
California’s onerous standards for fire safety are unique. According to Technical Bulletin 117, established by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings, all furniture manufactured in California must be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.
While there are other methods that meet California’s standards, such as barriers and safer chemicals, the cheapest way for manufacturers to meet TB 117 is to pour toxic, halogenated chemicals that act as fire retardants into all upholstered furniture.
This means that fire retardants are put in most things in your house your couch, your mattress, your baby’s pillows and strollers. The companies producing the fire retardants are huge multinational corporations — Albermarle, Chemtura, ICL Industrial Corp. and Tosoh — spending millions on lobbying and in drafting nonprofit fronts.
The fire retardants go by a variety of technical names: polybrominated diphenyl ether, halogenated substances, TRIS, BFRs, CFRs … the list goes on. That chemical family is halogenated chemicals. The only one that is legal in all consumer products is decabrominated diphenyl ether, referred to as DECA. Some of the chemicals that are known to be toxic are only banned from certain products, such as pajamas in the case of TRIS, but are still being poured into everyting from electronics to clothing to upholstery.
SB 772 specifically focuses on four pieces of children’s furniture. After reviewing years of data, the Bureau of Home Furnishings found that bassinets, nursing pillows, strollers, and infant pillows have never caused fire causality. Leno contends, "There is no need to pour chemicals into products that are not fire risks."
Numerous studies and agencies, including the National Toxicology Program and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have linked halogenated chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, ADHD, child autism, and long list of other ailments. Some, like Seth Jacobson, spokesperson for Citizens for Fire Safety, argue that the studies are exaggerated and "not scientifically valid".
Any manifestation of these diseases may take years to see or are complicated by other factors, making correlations to specific chemicals difficult to pinpoint. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth believes that this is a comparable scenario to the asbestos crisis of the 1980s. Asbestos was a common household chemical long suspected of toxicity and in 1989, after numerous health and legal battles, the EPA banned it. Decades later the federal government is still spending billions in liability lawsuits affecting more than 600,000 people.
Another issue is bioaccumulation these chemicals don’t stay put. According to Leno, these chemicals don’t bind to materials. Instead they fall to the floor and become part of dust. In 2006, the California EPA reported that "PBDEs have been measured in house and office dust, indoor air, plant and animal-based foods, terrestrial and marine animals, and in human breast milk, blood, and fat."
In 2008, scientists from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the Silent Spring Institute found that the levels of PBDEs in Californians are twice as high as other U.S. regions. The California EPA has reported that the highest tissue concentrations of PBDEs are found in California aquatic life, with rising levels in San Francisco Bay harbor seals. Long believes "this is one of the biggest toxic threats facing Californians today".
This is Leno’s second attempt at passing a bill involving these particular issues. The first, SB 706, introduced last year, sought to directly ban the use of toxic fire retardants. SB 706 was named the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Act, in memory of a 41-year-old firefighter who died of work-related, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is believed she developed the condition after breathing in dioxin (a highly toxic carcinogen) that was released from burning flame-retardants. Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Maine have already passed bills banning dioxin and have started phasing it out.
Banning chemicals is hard to do. Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California says that the petrochemical industry will slightly alter a banned chemical, "sort of chasing one version after another." In the United States, chemicals are mass-produced and distributed until they are found to be dangerous. In Europe, chemicals must be proven safe first.
The most outspoken opposition to both bills, SB 706 and SB 772, is a group called Citizens for Fire Safety. The group, headed by Jacobson, argues that fire retardants saves lives, noting that since California established TB 117 California structure fires have dropped by about 60 percent. Records from the National Fire Protection Association show a drop of 32 percent between 1980 and 2000. Yet other states, including New York, show a drop of 40 percent without a similar fire regulation. The drop can easily be ascribed to an increase in smoke detectors, better education, and more regulations on cigarettes: the number one fire instigator.
Citizens for Fire Safety’s funding is suspicious. Its Web site clearly states "a portion of our funding&ldots;comes from various chemical industry leaders." Indeed, Jacobson says he has no problems accepting funding from the same companies that manufacture the chemicals in question. Leno believes Citizens for Fire Safety is a "concerted business effort to confuse the public."
This nonprofit front is just one of the extraordinary efforts of the chemical companies to stop bills of this nature. According to Holober, the bromine companies spent between $6 million and $9 million on lobbyists and efforts to derail SB 706. This is the largest amount spent by a consumer-interest group in lobbying efforts, Leno and Holober say.
Public records show that the two biggest lobbying efforts on behalf of Citizens for Fire Safety represent the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, (which is funded by chemical corporations) and a PR group representing the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum. The BSEF represents all the major brominated flame-retardant companies.
Joe Kerr, president of Orange County Professional Firefighters Association Local 3631, makes more reasonable objections to SB 772. Kerr opposes the deregulation until "all the principals are brought to the table. Get the burn ward doctors, and the environmentalists, EPA, and Mark Leno together because there are good arguments on both sides." In the meantime, Kerr doesn’t want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." He also voices concern that some consumers will stop buying California products if the state’s fire standard is lowered.
SB 772 is a deregulatory, pro-environment bill that gives the market the option to decide. Any product that does not meet regulations will be labeled accordingly. Leno voiced concern that the labels will confuse the issue and many amendments have been made about where the labels should be placed.
Although the bill was approved by the full Senate in June, heavy lobbying efforts prevailed in the Assembly and it fell three votes short in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week. Reconsideration has been granted for next week when the bill will need nine votes before it can proceed to the Assembly floor. If SB 722 does not get nine votes, it will be another year before it can be heard again.