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Science & Policy Update July 2014: Toxics

SB 1019: Your Right to Choose Toxic-Free Furniture
By: Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director

In this month’s Science & Policy Update, we examine the recently changing policies surrounding the use of flame retardant chemicals in California, and the science that links many of these toxic chemicals with adverse health effects such as cancer, reproductive disorders, and brain damage.

On August 6th, the CA Assembly Appropriations Committee will vote on SB 1019, a bill (authored by Senator Mark Leno) that will require furniture manufacturers to disclose the use of flame retardant chemicals on a product’s label. The push for this particular bill follows the 2013 changes made to Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), the 1972 California regulation that set the standard for what could be considered “fire retardant” for upholstered furniture.

All seating sold in California is required to be fire retardant. Unfortunately, this has traditionally been achieved through the use of highly toxic chemicals that offer very little fire safety. In order to adhere to TB 117’s fire retardant standard, manufacturers relied heavily on the use of polyurethane foam treated with flame retardant chemicals.

Growing evidence shows that these chemicals can be harmful to human health. In some cases, these concerns have led to restrictions or bans of these chemicals. For example, certain commercial mixtures of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been banned internationally and withdrawn from U.S. markets due to their associations with hormonal and neurodevelopmental disruption in humans. Research from the Center for Environmental Research & Children’s Health found that higher PBDE exposures during pregnancy was associated with decreased female fertility, lower infant birth weight, and altered maternal thyroid hormones. Yet studies show that exposure to PBDE’s is ubiquitous, with 97% of American adults having detectable levels of PBDE’s in the blood.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the health harms associated with these toxins. Flame retardant chemicals are not chemically bound to the products that they are applied to. As a result they find their way into the surrounding environment, where they persist for years. Children, who spend time crawling on the ground and putting their fingers in their mouths, face increased exposure to these chemicals during sensitive periods of rapid growth and development. Testing conducted by the Center for Environmental Health in 2013 found widespread use of the flame retardants Firemaster 550, tris phosophate (TCPP), chlorinated tris (TDCPP), and butylated triphenyl phosphate in children’s furniture products. Exposure to these flame retardants have been linked with cancer, obesity, reduced fertility, and hormone disruption. TDCPP in particular is identified by the state of California and the U.S. National Research Council as a cancer-causing chemical.

Alongside concerns over the safety of these chemicals, the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI) recently found that these flame retardant chemicals do little to increase fire safety. In fact, some studies revealed that treated products actually perform worse during flammability tests. This finding prompted BEARHFTI to adopt TB 117-2013, an updated standard that does not necessitate the use of flame retardant chemicals.

With TB 117-2013, furniture manufacturers are no longer forced to use these toxics in order to meet the state’s flammability standards. This does not mean, however, that manufacturers are going to stop using these chemicals altogether. For those who wish to avoid purchasing products that have been treated with flame retardants, there is currently no way for them to do so. SB 1019, which is sponsored by the Center for Environmental Health, the California Professional Firefighters Association, and the National Resources Defense Council, would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of added flame retardant chemicals in a product’s label, allowing consumers the choice between products treated with these chemicals, and those not treated. PSR-LA supports disclosure of toxics in products to allow consumers to make a choice and manufactures to produce toxic free fire safety products that do not put the health of workers at risk.

Read more about the bill here, where you can also send a letter to your Assemblymember, urging him/her to protect your right to choose toxic-free furniture.