Governor Brown's Decision to Reduce Toxic Flame Retardants is Great News -- for Us and the Environment

That Governor Jerry Brown is ready to take on the flame-retardant industry and its toxins that are poisoning our bodies would have pleased my father.

On June 18, Brown directed state agencies to revise flammability standards with the goal of reducing toxic flame retardants: "found in everything from high chairs to couches... a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment," the Governor noted in a press release. "We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating -- wherever possible -- dangerous chemicals."

Although the governor decided that the first step is to get these toxins out of upholstered furniture, in time this science-based decision must be extended to clothing. If that happens, my late father will rest a bit easier.

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He, like his father and grandfather before him, was in the textile business. They all worked for Buster Brown Textiles, Inc., which my great-grandfather had founded in 1904. Each of them believed deeply in, and profited nicely from, Americans' love of cotton.

Cotton shirts and shorts; cotton socks, anklets, and underwear; in time, even beanies. That array of clothing was nicely captured in one of the company's trademarks: "Toe to Crown in Buster Brown."

Smooth and soft to the skin, nothing seemed more natural than this 100% Bebon cotton knitwear. I know because I wore it all the time, in reality and also in advertisements.

Take this gem of an ad from the early 1960s: I am holding the fishing pole bent hard by my effort to raise the concrete block to which its line was attached. Two girls to my right is my sister Kathy, leaning forward and smiling (or smirking -- your call).

The photo shoot occurred in a verdant Connecticut suburb, a deft decision. Like our clustering around the still, small pond whose placid surface reflected the color and styles of the clothes we wore, the site evoked an unspoiled landscape, cosseted, safe, and protected (except perhaps for the kid shinnying up the tree).

Yet that tranquil space, filled with happy "Outdoor Friends," was under dire threat. Rachel Carson had just published Silent Spring, a disturbing exploration of the power of chemicals to turn rivers into "elixirs of death." It doubled as a shocking exposé of the chemical companies' political influence -- their army of kept scientists and well-paid lobbyists, and the politicians who loved them.

Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyThe same industry that was churning out tons of deadly pesticides, notably DDT, was also concocting flame retardants. Through intensive campaigning in state legislatures and Congress it secured regulations requiring that these toxic substances be injected into the clothing we wear, the furniture we sit on, the bedding into which we snuggle each night. Its profits were more valuable than our lives.

My father fought unsuccessfully against the imposition of these new rules. Frustrated by the political power of these mega-corporations, and the subsequent governmental intrusion into his company's strategies and his customers' interests, he hated most of all how retardants altered the silken feel of the clothes he was so proud to produce and sell, across the nation and worldwide.

He had a point.

Surely it says something about the legacy of the decisions that politicians made in the early 1960s that it has taken half a century before anyone as powerful as the governor of California decided to blow the whistle on the damaging impact these toxins have had on the public's health and safety.

In his press release, Gov. Brown underscored the pernicious impact of flame retardants on the human body, recently the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-worthy investigative series in the Chicago Tribune, "Playing with Fire." These articles themselves were dependent in part on the critical analyses that Green Science Policy Institute, California Department of Public Health, and Cal/EPA have conducted.

As Brown noted, these toxins easily migrate into our bodies -- and once lodged within, silently disrupt our life chances.


  • Toddlers often have three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their mothers, and California children have some of the world's highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies

  • California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries

  • There are statistically significant associations between flame retardant levels in the blood of California women and reduced fertility

  • Firefighters have a significantly elevated risk of cancer that may be attributed to toxic chemicals they inhale, including flame retardants

The science is irrefutable. The politics will get intense.

The immensely powerful chemical industry is going to fight tooth-and-nail against any proposed changes to the current regulations; they will spend gargantuan amounts of money in Sacramento to try to manipulate the legislature and bend the state's chief executive to its will. This is how it has blunted other reform efforts in California (and elsewhere), such as the bottling up in May 2011 of Senate Bill 147 (SB 147), the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act.

Still, don't miss the significance of what Governor Brown has done: he has identified the relevant scientific evidence. He has given his marching orders to the relevant oversight agency -- the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation; and in the process has emboldened legislators and activists, scientists and consumers.

If the political brawl to come is fully joined and won, soon we might with greater ease than we can today sprawl in a chair, slide between the sheets, or slip on a cool, vintage Buster Brown Tee; make mine light blue with navy piping.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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