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Why Does California Require Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants? Time to Fix It.

PSR-LA Co-Sponsors SB 147 (Leno) the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act

By Miranda Fox

Left to Right: Senator Mark Leno, Dr. Arlene Blum, Martha Dina Argüello. February 1 press conference in Sacramento to introduce SB 147.

On February 1, Executive Director Martha Dina Argüello joined State Senator Mark Leno, fire scientists, environmental advocates, and public health leaders, at a press conference in Sacramento, where new legislation was announced that will create an alternative fire safety standard in California. If passed, the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act, will give consumers in the state the choice of purchasing furniture that has not been treated with brominated flame retardants but still complies with current fire safety standards.

Watch the press conference video.

Under current California law, mandated by Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), all foam in upholstered furniture and baby products must withstand exposure to a small open flame for 12 seconds. As a result, manufacturers treat the foam with toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals “are associated with cancer, reduced fertility and IQ, endocrine, thyroid and neurological impairments and have made their way into our dust, our bodies, and our children’s bodies, and at increasing levels, our food,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, who holds a PhD in biophysical chemistry and is the founder of Green Science Policy Institute.

As part of our commitment to creating healthy communities PSR-LA has decided to co sponsor SB 147. “We want to protect the right to be born without chemical contamination. Just recently there was a study that demonstrated that these chemicals cross the placenta during pregnancy and are found in the bodies of newborns. If we do not take care of this problem now, we are subjecting current and future generations to chemical body burdens and growing health disparities associated with exposure to these toxic chemicals. We believe that the best medicine is prevention, and that is why we are supporting this bill.” said Martha Dina Argüello.

TB 117 was passed in 1975, and California is the only state in the country with this type of requirement. Since this law was passed, levels of these hazardous flame retardant chemicals have increased 40 times in human breast milk, and virtually every Californian has these chemicals stored in their bodies as a result of inhaling contaminated dust from their furniture. These chemicals are so pervasive and damaging to our environment that they have begun to emerge in the bloodstreams of killer whales in the Antarctic.

While California is usually a leader in environmental protection and consumer safety, it lags behind the rest of the nation while it continues to implement TB 117. Last year the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission drafted an alternative fire safety standard based on a smolder, rather than flame, standard. Additionally, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommended that consumers avoid buying any products that are labeled with California’s TB 117. While members of other states have this option, Californians remain without a safe alternative. The Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act aims to provide consumers with this choice.

Authored by Senator Leno and cosponsored by a number of groups in addition to PSR-LA including Commonweal, Friends of the Earth, The Trauma Foundation, California Consumer Federation, and The Just Transition Alliance, SB 147 aims to give consumers this choice when making their purchasing decisions by March 1, 2013. Specifically the bill will require the Bureau of Home Furnishings to revise TB117 to include an alternative standard that can be met without the use of these toxic flame retardants by this date. According to Leno, this bill will be positive for both manufacturers and consumers.

“The result of this bill being in statute is that it will reduce the costs for manufacturers. They are experiencing ever increasing costs from the manufacturers of these chemicals who have a virtual monopoly on meeting this fire safety standard. It will lower costs for consumers. It will improve fire safety standards. It will finally reduce these dangerous chemical pollutants from our bodies and from the global environment.”

Even with these positive projected results, the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act will likely be met by strong opposition from the companies who manufacture flame retardant chemicals. With multibillion dollar profit margins, the chemical industry previously launched a $6 million campaign to prevent the repeal of TB117 and keep flame retardants in use in California. Marketing themselves as Citizens for Fire Safety, the chemical lobby’s campaign distributed materials through direct mail, radio and television amplifying fears of fire dangers without flame retardants.

However, supporting SB 147 is Dr. Vyto Babrauskas, the first in the United States to receive a PhD in the science of fire safety. Babrauskas did scientific research for the Federal agency National Institute of Standards and Technology where he was in charge of the furniture flammability program. In the course of his research, he found that furniture treated under TB117 regulation and furniture that was not treated with fire retardant burned at the same rate, with the same heat release. Additionally, according to a study conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1997, TB117 materials ignite at the same rate as materials not treated with flame retardants when exposed to small flames.

These two studies indicate that flame retardants are not improving fire safety. Babrauskas stated, “There are only two criteria that you can use to judge if you have achieved something good in terms of improving fire safety, and on neither of these does TB117 have a proven effectiveness.”

The Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act will provide a choice for equal protection, lower cost and safer products for people and the environment.

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