So What’s the Problem? Challenges in the Fight against Toxic Flame Retardants

Opposition to the use of chemical flame retardants has gained extraordinary momentum in just the past few months.  Catalyzed by a stunning exposé by the Chicago Tribune  and fed by a flood of ensuing media coverage, CEH and our allies have rallied scientists, doctors, activists, and community members.  Scientists have linked flame retardant exposure to a multitude of health hazards including cancer, infertility, and lowered IQ.  But these chemicals remain in wide use, in furniture and baby products used in our homes, schools, and offices, primarily due to an outdated California furniture rule that encourages the use of these unnecessary and harmful chemicals.

I was among the CEH staff members and interns who attended the California State Assembly Oversight Hearing on flame retardants and the Governor’s proposed new standard for toxic-free fire safe furniture on June 26th.  I was overwhelmed by the number of people in the small hearing room, all seemingly in opposition to TB 117; the room was so flooded, many had  to observe the live stream from outside the hearing room.  As scientist after scientist stated and restated the harmful health effects and unfortunate longevity of flame retardants, I felt that the meeting should adjourn because of the testifiers’ unanimity: the ineffectiveness of the outdated TB 117 was evident.  Some of the most compelling and unexpected testimony came from firefighters: they told of the toxic fumes (to which chemical flame retardants contribute) they breathe in burning buildings and the terminal cancers that result.  The solution seemed simple: revise TB 117 to protect ourselves, our children, and our firefighters.

So what’s the problem?  The problem walked in halfway through the hearing, not even bothering to listen to the other speakers.  Joe Lang, a representative of the industry-funded phony front group Citizens for Fire Safety (CFS), ostentatiously planted one-inch-thick information packets in front of the Assembly Members.  Then, after showing an informational video of dubious legitimacy, Mr. Lang proceeded to claim that chemical flame retardants are necessary for fire safety.  California Senator Mark Leno reminded the assembly members that the chemical industry, the puppeteers behind CFS, has been “discredited.”  Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to discredit money, the real power of the chemical industry.  In the past five years, the chemical industry has spent $23 million lobbying California officials and making campaign donations to legislators.  [] Even more unsettling is the fact that we are funding those companies—every purchase of furniture containing flame retardants (which even includes some furniture that is not required to meet TB 117) is money in their pockets. 

So what’s the danger of the chemical companies now that we’re changing TB 117?  See our previous blog post for an account of their past actions.  These companies will also have the opportunity to influence TB 117-2012, the proposed new smolder standard, during its writing.  The California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation plans to refine TB 117-2012 through workshops to discussing the regulation’s proposed requirements, test procedure, and apparatus.  These workshops will be held on Monday, July 23, and Wednesday, July 25, 2012, and are open to the public.

As the revisions are hammered out, we must remember that a new law is not always a good law, especially if it’s under the influence of the chemical companies.  As CEH’s Pollution Prevention Coordinator Judy Levin told legislators at the June 26th hearing, “You will need to be prepared to be extraordinarily vigilant over the coming year… You already know some of the tactics [Citizens for Fire Safety] will do… Please be vigilant.  Please protect public health and the environment.”  Our health should not suffer collateral damage in the chemical industry’s ruthless quest for profit.

The fight isn’t over: although the adoption of TB 117-2012 will have positive effects on a national scale, we need to ensure toxic-free  fire safety regulations are adopted nationally.  Take action: Support the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s smolder standard