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Debate Takes on Safety of Flame Retardants

| March 27, 2013
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[UPDATE: EPA announces plans to study whether flame retardant chemicals are safe]

Does injecting sofas and armchairs with flame retardants hurt us or protect us?

That debate took place in Sacramento Tuesday as part of a hearing on an arcane but controversial law known as TB117.

California officials are moving forward to eliminate toxic flame retardants from household furniture. (Thinkstock)

California officials are moving forward to eliminate toxic flame retardants from household furniture. (Thinkstock)

According to TB117, which was established in 1975, all furniture sold in California must be capable of resisting an open flame, such as a candle, for at least 12 seconds. To meet this standard, furniture makers soak foam cushions in flame retardants — up to several pounds of the chemicals in a single sofa.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to overhaul the law, effectively eliminating the chemicals from furniture, but state regulators have final say.

At Tuesday’s hearing, about a dozen opponents of the law, including representatives from firefighter and environmental health groups, testified that TB117 is both ineffective in fighting fires and the indirect cause of widespread health problems.

Only one testimony defended the merits of using flame retardants. Longtime fire-safety scientist John McCormack, who is now a paid consultant of the industry group that represents makers of flame retardants, spoke against the overhaul.

“The long-term effects of this change, while unknown now, may result in more losses,” McCormack said.

In the 38 years since the law passed, scientists have increasingly sounded alarms over the toxic properties of many of these chemicals, linking them to a swath of health issues,  including obesity, cancer, learning problems, and infertility.

In February, Gov. Brown announced a proposal to overhaul the law in order to reduce the use of these chemicals. State regulators received more than 30,000 comments in a public comment period, which ended Tuesday.

Flame retardants migrate from upholstered furniture and turn up in breast milk, blood and household dust. Toddlers, who spend more time on the floor, have shown higher levels of the chemicals than adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one class of flame retardants called PBDEs showed up in the blood of nearly every sample taken for a recent national bio-monitoring survey.

There are far fewer fires today than there were in the 1970s, when TB117 was written. Fewer smokers, as well as laws requiring smoke detectors and sprinklers, have made homes safer. These days, most fires start in the kitchen, not on a sofa.

The proposed revision would require that furniture pass a “smolder test,” proving it can resist fires caused by cigarettes, which account for about 40 percent of home fires that start on furniture. Flames, such as candles, account for 10 percent of furniture fires. Furniture makers could meet the smolder test without using flame retardants.

“I think it’s a huge win-win,” said Arlene Blum, a chemist and longtime advocate of revised flammability laws. The revised law, she said, “will increase fire safety and at the same time stop the use of toxic flame retardants, which will greatly improve the health of our state.”

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Category: Health, Parenting, Sacramento, Science

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine. Reach Amy Standen at astanden@kqed.org.

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