Tuesday, June 26th, marked an exciting time in the recent battle of human and environmental health vs. corporate profits as the California State Assembly held a public hearing on the science of flame retardants to provide the opportunity for scientists, environmental health activists, furniture manufacturers, firefighters, burn specialists, and community members to inform state legislators on this time sensitive issue. This issue was of the utmost importance to address due to the recent exposure of the deceptive nature of big name chemical companies (see The Chicago Tribune) seeking to cover up serious concerns about the harmful health effects of flame retardant chemicals.
The hearing began with Tonya Blood, chief of the Bureau of Home Furnishing and Thermal Insulation— which oversees the fire safety regulation of furniture— who presented a proposal for a new standard of testing furniture for flammability standards. Under the current law of TB-117, furniture manufacturers are required to test furniture using an open-flame standard. This open-flame standard requires furniture to be able to withstand an open flame, such as that of a candle, for more than 12 seconds. The proposed standard would require furniture manufacturers to instead test using a “smoldering” standard. A smoldering standard would require furniture be able to withstand a smoldering object, such as a smoldering cigarette. This standard is more logical considering that an unattended smoldering cigarette is much more prone to starting household fires than an unattended candle. There are several non-chemical options that meet the new smolder standard, which eliminates the need for furniture manufacturers to continue using flame retardants.
California Department of Public Health representative stated California citizens have four to ten times higher levels of flame retardants than any other area of the United States. Lower sperm count, infertility and reproductive issues, lower IQ levels, autism, learning disabilities, and cancer rates are just some of the negative consequences linked to the usage of flame retardants. Children are especially at risk due to their closeness to furniture and carpet as well as their frequent hand to mouth contact, the most common level of entry of flame retardants. Given that the main chemical used in California furniture today, chlorinated Tris, was banned for use in kids’ sleepwear in the 1970s because it was a mutagen and probable human carcinogen, this hearing, and the momentum behind the change in standards that goes with it, can’t happen fast enough.
Furniture manufacturers testified to the positive changes a smolder standard would create for the furniture industry. Although the pricing of furniture would not be dramatically affected by the changes in standard, they recognized the growing concern of consumers regarding the use of chemicals when purchasing their furniture and believe that 85% of the fabrics already used in their manufacturing process would be able to pass the smoldering standard. The remaining 15% would require an additional barrier between the fabric and foam.
The new regulation’s sole opposition came from industry front-group Citizens for Fire Safety, which has a history of fraudulent practices and a track-record of deceit, documented by The Chicago Tribune. Senator Mark Leno, who previously authored bills aimed at regulating flame retardant chemical use, read from the Chicago Tribune article detailing their past transgressions, directly calling the group’s credibility into question.
Following the scheduled speakers, the public was allowed to voice their concerns about the TB-117 standard and the plans for revision. Those present, , including Center for Environmental Health (CEH), applauded state legislators for taking action and urged them to recognize the importance of revising TB-117 not only for our generation, but for the generations to come.
Of her experience at the hearing, fellow CEH intern Julia Hannafin said, “The most striking testimony at the State Assembly hearing for me was the testimony of one of the firefighters. The idea that the main argument for flame retardants is to promote fire safety, and that in reality these toxic chemicals make it so that firefighters have another cause of death to worry about in the workplace, is unthinkable to me.” Corinne Smith of CEH remarked, “It’s disturbing to think the next generation of the Bay Area is already carrying toxins in their bodies, the effects of which we know so little about. It is beyond a fire safety or business regulatory issue, it is an embodied issue which, as Californian’s, we carry with us every day. “
I too was touched by the words of the testifying firefighters. Their words will resonate with me for quite some time. Here were public servants, who dedicated their careers and lives to saving ours, yet are repaid with various forms of cancer. They sacrificed so much for the citizens of California. I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this one of the first steps we can take to make it right?
It was a privilege to be able to sit in the same room and witness the citizens of California unite together to cease the work of heartless chemical companies who have attempted to prevent all efforts to remove toxic chemicals from the environment in the past. It’s time for these companies to wake up and realize when it comes to mothers fighting for the right to prevent toxins from getting into their home, bodies, and children we will never, never, never give up.