IAFF Safety Alerts
This link will take you to the IAFFOnline Safety Alerts Page with updated safety alerts for Fire Fighters.
Effort afoot to ban flame retardants in furniture
Updated On: Nov 29, 2015
Effort afoot to ban flame retardants in furniture
By Christian M. Wade CNHI State Reporter | Posted: Thursday, August 6, 2015 3:00 am
BOSTON — Flame retardants show up in a range of products from children’s clothes and toys to furniture and electronics, and over the years they’ve gotten credit for saving lives and property.
But fire-slowing chemicals are also linked to health problems — including cancer, birth defects and nervous system damage — and are banned in at least 13 states.
A coalition of firefighters and environmentalists in Massachusetts is lobbying for a similar ban on flame- retardant children’s products and household furniture. They point to studies that suggest flame-retardant chemicals are a health threat that actually does little good.
“Flame retardants cause cancer, and they don’t stop fires,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director for Clean Water Action, a coalition member. “It’s time for these toxic chemicals to go.”
The group — which includes the American Academy of Pediatrics and Massachusetts Nurses Association — wants a prohibition on the manufacture or sale of children’s products and upholstered furniture that contain any of nearly a dozen toxic chemicals identified as harmful.
With furniture makers and retailers moving away from using flame retardants anyway, the chemical industry is fighting back to protect a multibillion-dollar market that reaches into nearly every American home.
A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council defended the use of flame retardants in clothing and other products, adding that a “one-size fits-all” ban isn’t the solution.
“Fires have dropped significantly over the past 40 years, and a major contributor to the decline in fires and fire deaths since the 1970s was the development of a comprehensive set of fire-safety measures that includes flame retardants,” said council spokesman Bryan Goodman.
He pointed out that flame retardants are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators. A recent study by the European Union concluded that one of the more common chemicals used in flame retardants doesn’t pose a health risk, he said.
Edward Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said flame retardants do little to prevent fires but “pose a real threat” to firefighters working inside burning buildings.
Firefighters have cancer rates three times higher than the public, he said.
“When we enter a home fire, we breathe in toxins from flame retardants that put us at risk,” Kelly said.
Jennifer Lowry, a Missouri physician and chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health, noted mounting evidence that flame-retardant products cause fertility problems in adults, as well as long-term health effects for children, but their pervasiveness makes them difficult to avoid.
“We live in a sludge of chemicals that are linked to some serious health problems,” Lowry said. “They get out into the dirt and dust in our homes, the air that we breathe, and ultimately into our bodies.”
At least 13 states — including California, Maine, New York and Vermont — ban flame-retardant products, while a dozen other states are considering similar restrictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the industry is resisting and suing to block laws that seek to keep flame retardants off the market or require labeling of new products.
Advocates are pressing the Consumer Product Safety Commission to aggressively ban some products with flame retardant chemicals. The industry is fighting that effort, as well.
Meanwhile, furniture-makers have reacted to consumer concerns by shifting away from retardants.
Ashley Furniture — the country’s largest furniture retailer — stopped using flame-retardant chemicals in its upholstered furniture as of this year. A spokesman said the company changed its national policy when it was forced to comply with California’s ban on the use of flame retardants.
Lay-Z-Boy, Crate & Barrel and the Futon Shop also recently began selling flame retardant-free furniture.
Under a new federal “flammability” standard, upholstery fabric must resist a smoldering cigarette, which statistics indicate is the primary cause of residential fires involving furniture.
Advocates for banning flame retardants say the chemical industry is finding a way around restrictions imposed by states by merely adjusting the compounds it uses.
“It’s been a classic example of what we call the ‘whack-a-mole’ phenomenon,” said Saunders, of Clean Water Action. “One toxic flame retardant chemical gets phased out, and it’s just replaced with another, equally toxic chemical.”
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com