For years I have worked with my colleagues in the legislature to eliminate the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in California.
Our state’s antiquated and unique fire safety standard demands that manufacturers around the globe put harmful flame retardant chemicals into our furniture, electronics, children’s products and clothing – despite evidence showing that they do not protect us from fires.
In fact, these chemicals do more harm than good. Flame retardant chemicals may delay the start of a fire by seconds, but significantly increase the incidence of carbon monoxide and smoke, potentially increasing fire deaths.
Scientists have found that exposure to even small doses of flame retardants can cause substantial harm to human health and the environment. Evidence links exposure to these commonly used chemicals with numerous health conditions including cancer, neurological abnormalities, birth defects, lowered IQ, and impaired fertility.
While the chemicals are used around the world, Americans have the highest level of flame retardants in their bodies. Toddlers, who spend a lot of their time on floors and furniture products that contain these chemicals, have exposure levels measuring many times higher than their mothers.
Despite evidence validating the toxicity of these chemicals, our efforts to adopt a revised fire safety standard that poses less harm have failed. In the past five years I have authored four bills related to California’s outdated flammability standards, known as Technical Bulletin 117.
My last bill, authored in 2011, would have allowed consumers the choice of purchasing furniture and baby products that are fire safe and do not contain toxic flame retardants. That bill, and all of the others, was defeated by the chemical industry’s front group, Citizens for Fire Safety.
Fortunately, I believe the public discussion on flame retardant chemicals is beginning to change course. Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune authored a series of investigative stories, “Playing With Fire,” that examined the lobbying efforts of the chemical industry.
The Tribune detailed the deceptive and unethical practices three different chemical companies use to successfully hinder legislative proposals to regulate flame retardant chemicals in California and other states. Citizens for Fire Safety intentionally misrepresents the health risks of these chemicals and uses racial profiling tactics to mislead community leaders to believe in unproven benefits of flame retardants. It also hires expert witnesses who fabricate stories about children dying in fires in order to halt any progress on controlling these toxic substances.
Following the Chicago Tribune series, Governor Jerry Brown announced plans to review California’s decades-old fire safety standard, which essentially mandates the use of toxic chemicals. While the adoption of a new standard will take time, I am encouraged that our Governor recognizes the harm caused by these toxic chemicals and has directed his administration to take action.
To help ensure that our efforts to adopt useful and safe fire standards go beyond California, I introduced a resolution in late June urging Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act. If passed by Congress, the Safe Chemicals Act would restrict the use of flame retardants and other harmful compounds in communities across the country, an effort being led by U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Dick Durbin.
I am hopeful that our collective efforts at the state and federal level will help ensure that the furniture and consumer products we use and manufacture are safe and free from dangerous, toxic substances.
For more information on the Chicago Tribune series, “Playing With Fire,” visit www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog.
Senator Mark Leno represents the Third Senate District of California, which includes parts of San Francisco and Sonoma Counties and all of Marin County.