Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals Have Gotta Go

By Avinash Kar, NRDC; Alvaro Casanova, Center for Environmental Health; and Carroll Wills, California Professional Firefighters

What if I told you that you have been and continue to be exposed to dangerous chemicals in your home for no good reason? What if these chemicals exposed firefighters to greater cancer risks in the bargain? You wouldn’t be happy and you’d want to get the stuff out, right?

Alvaro Casanova, Center for Environmental Health; Avinash Kar, NRDC; Captain Emily Lo, California Professional Firefighters, after testifying in support of AB 2998 (Bloom)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the situation we are facing. Toxic flame retardant chemicals have been added to upholstered furniture, many kids’ “home furnishing” products (such as changing pads, high chairs bassinets, and strollers), and mattresses for a long time. And the kicker is that they are not even needed for fire safety.

Many flame retardant chemicals are linked to a variety of health effects from cancer to learning disabilities, reproductive harm, and hormone disruption. When products with flame retardant chemicals burn, they give off dioxins and furans, which can expose firefighters to additional cancer risks—firefighters have much higher rates of cancer than the general population. And these chemicals are persistent, meaning that they don’t go away, are showing up everywhere in our environment and are building up in people, pets, and the environment. They have been found all over the globe including in high levels in marine mammals like seals and killer whales in the Arctic. Closer to home, California’s children have especially high levels of these toxic chemicals. And children are particularly vulnerable to health effects since they are still developing.

California’s Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation (BEARHFTI for short) determined that the addition of flame retardant chemicals does not provide a meaningful fire safety benefit when added to upholstered furniture. (These chemicals got added to the furniture in the first place thanks to chemical and tobacco industry misinformation.) That’s why BEARHFTI has now changed its fire safety standard to provide fire safety without the need to add toxic flame retardant chemicals. Testing results and furniture labels now indicate that about 75 percent of furniture is already produced without flame retardant chemicals. Maine has already banned flame retardant chemicals in furniture and San Francisco has done the same for furniture and children’s products.

BEARHFTI also determined that children’s home furnishing products don’t pose a significant fire safety risk and exempted them from having to meet flammability standards. Again, testing indicates that the vast majority of these products are already being produced without flame retardant chemicals.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which sets mattress flammability standards, has stated that our mattresses don’t need the chemicals either.  And once again, testing shows that the majority of mattresses are already produced without flame retardant chemicals.

However, a small but significant number of laggards continue to expose us to these dangerous chemicals unnecessarily. Alternatives are clearly available and feasible. We can put a stop to this. A bill in the California legislature, AB 2998 by Assembly Member Bloom would do just that. It would phase out toxic flame retardant chemicals in furniture, children’s home furnishings, and mattresses, and make our homes safer for our families and for the firefighters who protect them.

The bill was introduced in the California Assembly by Assemblymember Bloom. It has made it through two policy committees in the Assembly, but still has to be voted on in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and on the Assembly Floor, before making its way through the Senate. We are hopeful that the Legislature will move the bill forward.