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Advocates continue battle against flame-retardant chemicals

Matthew Venn/Flickr State legislators and consumer advocates want the state to consider the health risks associated with flame-retardant chemicals. 

After years of failed attempts to regulate flame-retardant chemicals linked to mounting evidence of harm, state legislators and consumer advocates are gearing up to take another look at the risks and benefits.

The chemicals have been measured at high levels in some Californians’ bloodstreams and breast milk, and research links some of the firefighting compounds to infertility and lower IQ scores among children.

While state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has carried bills that would limit the chemicals’ use in consumer products since 2007, heavily funded chemical companies repeatedly have lobbied against them. Now, a four-part investigation by the Chicago Tribune has exposed disingenuous testimony delivered to California lawmakers and found that the chemicals cause more harm than good.

Leno said the news coverage and efforts by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are injecting new energy into what has been an arduous effort to limit the use of harmful chemicals. The Golden State has long been the central battleground on the issue, largely because of an obscure “technical bulletin” that supports the use of hefty amounts of chemicals in couches. The bulletin is a legal guidance, similar to a regulation, that mandates how upholstered furniture must be made to resist catching fire.

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“It’s been really tough, but we’re getting somewhere,” Leno said. “My hope and dream is that we scrap technical bulletin 117, which on its face makes no sense.”

Leno said he plans to introduce a state Senate resolution to support Durbin's efforts to take a close look at flame-retardant chemicals and tactics employed by chemical company lobbyists.

Leno’s legislative efforts have included a bill that would have changed flammability standards so safety could be achieved with fewer or no chemicals. He also carried a bill that would have banned flame-retardant chemicals from baby products.

His most recent bill would have given consumers a choice of buying products with or without chemical flame retardants. During a press conference unveiling that bill last year, researchers described finding 40-fold increases in flame-retardant chemicals in human breast milk since the technical bulletin was put in place. Research also has linked the chemicals used in couches to cancer and learning disabilities.

At that press conference, Vyto Babrauskas, a fire safety engineer, said the health risks linked to flame retardants persist while product-safety tests show that the chemicals, in quantities that are routinely used, do little to quell fires. “It’s really the worst of both possible worlds,” he said.

Still, Leno's bill, like the ones before it, failed.

“It has been a great struggle and very frustrating, because each of our attempts has been a very reasonable effort to provide greater safety to the health of our children, our families and our environment,” Leno said.

Those opposing bills to regulate the chemicals have argued on the grounds of fire safety and say evidence of harm linked to the chemicals is limited. They also have urged authorities to avoid bills that target individual chemicals, given the state's "green chemistry" initiative, which is a comprehensive effort to improve chemical-related product safety.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Culver City, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have revised the state’s fire safety standard to allow furniture to meet fire safety levels without chemicals. That bill is not moving forward.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, has called a hearing to examine California’s flammability requirements and the human and environmental impacts of flame-retardant chemicals. A date has not yet been confirmed.

Ana Mascareñas, policy and communications coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, said advocates are planning to start meeting with the state agency that created and enforces technical bulletin 117.

“Having legislation out there is really important, but it isn’t the only way to change it,” Mascareñas said.

Melissa Figueroa, spokeswoman for California's State and Consumer Services Agency, said the talks are preliminary and no decisions have been made.

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