California Moving To New Rules on Flame Retardants

A diagram from the state's current regulation on fire-safety of upholstered furniture (State Technical Bulletin 117)

California regulators say they’re committed to eliminating toxic flame retardants from baby products and couches within a year.

“It’s huge,” says Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at U.C. Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute

“We in California have had a unique flammability standard since 1975,” Blum says. “That [standard] has been met with pound levels of chemicals that are like DDT or PCBs in our couches. And they’re chemicals that are continually migrating out of couches into dust and they’re ending up in our pets and our children … and in us.”

This week Tonya Blood, the head of the department that oversees furniture regulations, told a state senate committee the agency is committed to getting rid of the old standard and replacing it with new fire-safety rules that can be met without the use of chemicals.

Right now, Blood says, upholstered furniture has to be able to withstand an open flame for a number of seconds, which requires the chemical treatment of foam. The new approach to fire safety would draw on federal standards requiring safer outer fabrics that don’t need chemical flame retardants to pass a smolder test.

Some advocates say the smolder test is a better measure anyway because more fire fatalities stem from an unattended cigarette than from a falling candle.

Blood says they want to accomplish the rule change in the next 12 months. “That [is] an aggressive timeline,” she told me today.

Because California is such a large market, manufacturers cater to its standards. Changing the law could have a big ripple effect. KQED’s Amy Standen did a story on this issue last month.

According to the American Home Furnishings Alliance, more than 80 percent of furniture sold in the U.S. contains foam treated with flame retardant chemicals.

The problem, chemists say, is that the chemicals don’t just stay inside the sofas — they turn up in household dust and in human blood and breast milk. Some of these chemicals cause cancer in lab animals, and studies suggest connections between some of the chemicals and abnormal brain development in humans.

Over the years, the most worrisome chemicals have been phased out, but they’re still present in older furniture. Meanwhile, new chemicals come online and scientists scramble to test them. For these reasons, California lawmakers have tried five times to change this law.

“It’s enormously frustrating,” says state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat.

Leno’s recent bill had the support of furniture makers, firefighter groups and doctors. All of them wanted the chemicals out of furniture, but the bill died in committee. Every lawmaker who voted against it had received campaign contributions from the chemical industry.

After all these years, why are things changing now? Advocates point to a recent series in the Chicago Tribune that’s been widely hailed for helping bring wide spread attention to the issue. One story pointed out how everything started when tobacco companies wanted to shift blame for fire deaths away from cigarettes. Another story featured a burn doctor sponsored by a chemical industry group, who repeatedly made up testimony about young patients whose deaths he claimed might have been prevented by flame retardants.

Tonya Blood says California has been moving toward these changes for years. But there does seem to be increased urgency. Blood says her agency will hold public workshops on the topic July 23-25. Details to come, but one will be in Sacramento, she says, and the other in Southern California.

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