Toxic Households: How Chemical Flame Retardants Compromise Californians' Health (UPDATED)

Update, May 4th: A second updating of the committee vote on SB 147: on Monday, May 2, the Senate Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development again voted down SB 147, 8-1.

Update, April 21st: On Monday, April 25, the Senate Committee with oversight over SB 147, voted 8-1 against the bill; and then voted 9-0 to reconsider the bill this coming Monday, May 2. Those Southern California Democratic senators receiving campaign donations from the major chemical companies (see list of the recipients below) lined up in opposition to the legislation that would have given Californians the freedom to choose how much toxic material they want to bring into their homes, lives, and bodies. For an analysis in the Sacramento Bee of the critical significance of SB 147, click here.

If you are sitting down while reading this, lounging on a couch, or have just put your kids down for the night, you might want to check the label on all that comfy furniture. It should indicate that it meets the requirements of the California Furniture Flammability Standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117).

Sounds reassuring, doesn't it?

What this actually means is that your furniture contains polyurethane foam designed to withstand a 12-second exposure to an open flame. And while this too seems like a good thing, it's not. Although TB 117 does not explicitly require the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture and infant-product foam, this standard cannot realistically be met without using them.

Story continues below

The problem is that these toxic chemicals don't stay put in these products: they migrate into house dust and on to clothing, our skin, and pets. Indeed, the chemical flame retardants added to the foam produce such an explosive array of toxic damage that Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced Senate Bill 147 (SB 147), the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act. If passed, it will offer consumers a healthy, effective, and safe alternative that will insure their in-home security.

"Our young children whose bodies are still developing and our firefighters who risk their lives to save others are unnecessarily exposed to high rates of toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, infertility, and learning disabilities," said Senator Leno. "The Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act will require California to update its existing fire safety standards with alternative guidelines that can be met without the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals. The new standard will help prevent cancer and other diseases without reducing fire safety."

The pressing need for SB 147 is made clear by a disturbing set of scientific data. Although California is the only state to have its own furniture flammability rules, the chemical retardants fabricated into our furniture, polyurethane-containing bedding, and baby products have not reduced the number of household fires or fire-caused deaths any more here than in other states. Indeed, the evidence indicates that while these ingredients may briefly inhibit ignition, they can also produce increased amounts of soot, smoke and carbon monoxide--the very factors that are the major cause of fire-related deaths.

These chemical agents are also are highly dangerous for pregnant women. The direct, intimate connection between a mother and her fetus, as Physicians for Social Responsibility notes, is reflected in the transfer of these toxins to the unborn child; this transmission continues after birth through breast-feeding, offgassing, and the hand-to-mouth behavior so characteristic of infants and young children. One of the main agents used to comply with TB 117 is a mixture known as pentaBDE. It has been been linked to lower IQs in the young; and, among adults, to reduced fertility in women, adverse thyroid and other hormonal changes, and decreased sperm counts. The data on its deleterious impacts on public health is so substantial that the California Legislature has banned it, as have many other states and the entire European Union.

These bans do nothing to remove the millions of pounds of pentaBDE that are present in furniture that was made before 2005. Moreover, because TB 117 is still in effect, different flame-retardant chemicals, some of which are known to cause gene mutations and cancer, and others of which have not even been tested for their long-term toxicity, are instead now being used in our furniture and baby products.

California's rule intended to "protect" households and families has created this shocking outcome: those living in the Golden State have the highest levels of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, and in the airborne dust that we daily breathe, of anywhere in the world. A just-published UC-Berkeley study confirms this: children in California have upwards of seven times the levels of flame retardants in their bodies as do those in Mexico. The legislation that was supposed to save us from fires is altering our blood chemistry in demonstrably unhealthy ways.

This disturbing situation could change if the State Senate Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development, which is holding hearings on SB 147 on Monday, votes in support of this essential legislation. But to capitalize on this opportunity, the senators are going to need a strong push from the electorate--and fast. After all, the chemical industry profits mightily from the current flame-retardant legislation and it has been contributing to politicians' campaign coffers. Among those giving directly or through the American Chemistry Council include mega-firms Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israel Chemicals International; as well as California-based ACC.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest group, those benefiting from contributions from these organizations in the past few years include a majority of the members of the Senate committee that will determine SB 147's fate, among them Southern California Senators Ed Hernandez, Gloria Negrete McLeod, Curren Price, Juan Vargas, and Lou Correa.

Given the interlocking relationship between the chemical industry and Southland politicians, SB 147 may not voted into law during this session of the legislature. But it should be enacted soon. Because until such time as Californians are able to purchase furniture, bedding, and clothing that is free of these toxic chemicals, none of us will sit, lounge, or rest easy.

Sen. Mark Leno introduces SB 147

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West."

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user cabbit. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading