Sacramento Bee: Change Safety Standards for Toxic Furniture

Crossposted from the Sacramento Bee, an op-ed by Sarah Janssen.

Gov. Jerry Brown made a bold move last month when he directed a state agency to update California’s 40-year-old furniture flammability standards to improve fire safety and eliminate use of toxic and untested chemicals.

Just a few weeks after Brown’s directive, the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation will hold public workshops in Sacramento and Riverside to review its recent draft flammability standard. The standard will address the most common cause of fire, smoldering cigarettes, while ensuring that your couch won’t be laden with toxic chemicals.

This critical change will have a significant impact, not just in California but across the country.

For decades, an ineffective California flammability standard, TB 117, has resulted in the foam inside our sofas, recliners and love seats being saturated with nearly 2 pounds of toxic flame retardants. Not surprisingly, this large volume of chemicals does not stay in the foam but slowly evaporates and attaches to dust particles that are ingested or inhaled by us, our children and pets. In fact, house dust in California homes and Californian children are the most polluted in the world with toxic flame retardant chemicals.

Toxic flame retardant chemicals present the worst of two possible worlds. They are ineffective in preventing fires, and exposure to these chemicals is linked to serious health effects.

As the recent Chicago Tribune investigative series revealed, the chemicals provide no real protection from household blazes, particularly the smoldering fires started by cigarettes. In fact, they only make fires more toxic by forming deadly gases and soot that are the real killers in most fires.

Exposure to toxic flame retardants has been linked to real and measurable health impacts. Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies. Children exposed in the womb have a lower IQ and attention problems. Other studies have linked flame retardants to male infertility, male birth defects and early puberty in girls. A recent study in animals has linked toxic flame retardants to autism.

Most of these studies were done looking at the flame retardants, pentaBDE, which was banned in California in 2003. PentaBDE has since been replaced by other harmful and untested chemicals just to meet the ineffective standard. For example, one common replacement chemical is chlorinated Tris. Tris was banned from children’s pajamas three decades ago after being linked to cancer, but was never banned for any other use. Today it is commonly found in furniture foam and house dust.

Flame retardants aren’t just polluting our homes, they are polluting the world. During manufacturing, use and disposal, these chemicals are released into the environment where they can be found in air, water and wildlife. They are carried on air currents as far away as the Arctic where they pollute native human populations and even polar bears.

Updating California’s flammability standard will improve the global environment, but at the federal front much work still needs to be done.

The Natural Resources Defense Council along with more than 40 organizations recently wrote to the Consumer Product Safety Commission urging the agency to finalize its furniture flammability rules drafted in 2008, and an online petition (CEH’s version here) is under way. Like California’s standard, the safety commission flammability standard addresses fires caused by smoldering cigarettes and would set the bar for fire safety standards across the country. It is time for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 3-year-old draft to be final.

Congress must also support and pass the Safe Chemicals Act, which would update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Under the current law, chemicals are presumed to be safe until found harmful, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little power to ban even notoriously deadly chemicals like asbestos. The proposed legislation being considered will give EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals, including flame retardants.

We can’t shop our way out of exposure to toxic chemicals. However, better regulation of chemicals can address and solve this concerning problem. What is important now is to keep the pressure on our public officials and state and federal agencies, to ensure the changes under way continue. Immediate and effective state and federal action to eliminate the use of toxic flame retardants goes hand-in-hand with ensuring Congress reforms chemical laws to protect our health.