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Now is the Time Californians: Taking Action on Flame Retardants

Victoria Rome

Posted June 7, 2012

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NRDC is ramping up its efforts to modernize the 1975 California flammability standard imposed on furniture manufacturers nationwide following revelations that a massive hoax led to decades of soaking upholstered furniture in toxic, but ineffective, fire retardant chemicals.

 Last week, NRDC issued an action alert urging the Brown Administration to act immediately to modernize the state’s flammability standard (known as TB117) to better address fire safety for household furniture without harmful and untested chemicals that have been spreading into our homes, bodies and environment for nearly 40 years. Californians can join NRDC by telling Governor Jerry Brown and the California Bureau of Home Furnishings Chief Tonya Blood to act immediately. Go here to send your message.

 Although NRDC and a coalition of firefighters, scientists, businesses, consumers, and public health advocates have been working for discontinuance of these chemicals that researchers have long warned are dangerous, the Chicago Tribune’s meticulous investigation last month added fuel to the groups’ efforts by exposing the colossal conspiracy between Big Tobacco and the chemical industry that led to their use, and quoted researchers as saying the chemicals are ineffective in preventing or slowing household blazes.

 Following closely on the heels of the Tribune’s investigative report, the California State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials will hold an informational hearing on June 26 at the State Capitol to examine the effectiveness of TB 117 and of the environmental and human health impacts of flame retardant chemicals. 

 The Tribune series unveiled an enormous fraud perpetrated by Big Tobacco and the chemical industry so the tobacco industry could divert attention from cigarettes as a major cause of fire fatalities, and the chemical industry could sell more chemicals – an estimated 4.4 billion pounds of fire retardant substances annually by next year. They marshaled expert witnesses who provided heartbreaking and false “testimony” of children scarred or killed by residential fires. As my colleague Sarah Janssen wrote,

Dr. David Heimbach, a prominent, retired burn doctor, was paid by a front group for the major flame retardant manufacturers to travel the country and tell these tragic tales. When the Tribune could find no evidence these children existed, Heimbach claimed the stories were “anecdotal.”

 But as a result of these “anecdotes” and other efforts by Big Tobacco and the chemical industry, the foam used in upholstered couches, love seats and chairs was soaked in millions of pounds of chemicals – up to 2 pounds in a large couch – that release toxic dust into the environment that can be ingested by children and pets. Baby and other household products also have been doused with these substances linked to cancer, decreased fertility, hormone disruption, lowered IQ and hyperactivity. And while the chemicals do not prevent furniture from catching fire, the soaked foam threatens the health of firefighters because it releases carbon monoxide and soot when burned.

 As I wrote last month, California must update its flammability standard based on current fire safety science and years of research by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission – and do so without using toxic and untested chemicals.

 Clearly the Tribune’s revelations have accelerated the efforts to act on fire retardant chemicals, but Californians – and all Americans – must insist that government take action now to end this sham and enact standards that provide measurable fire safety benefits without poisoning us. Go here now to send your message.

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