Citizens for Fire Safety, a nonprofit with ties to the chemical manufacturing industry, has fought – and won – numerous battles to keep an obscure California-only regulation in place that mandates the use of flame-retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture.
But yesterday, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, unveiled a new bill that would give California manufacturers the option to make chemical-free couches, and other upholstered items, that also meet rigorous federal fire safety efforts.
The bill would create an alternative to the obscure and controversial "technical bulletin 117," which requires upholstered furniture to be filled with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals. The required chemicals have been linked to cancer, infertility, lower IQs and learning disabilities in children, Leno said. (The most toxic flame-retardant chemical, PBDE, is now illegal in California.)
Such chemicals have been documented everywhere from household dust to human breast milk to killer whales in the Antarctic. And scientists have been decrying the widespread, persistent and health-averse properties of the toxic flame-retardants for years. Some chemical and consumer groups have taken voluntary steps to minimize the use of such chemicals and develop green alternatives.
But yesterday was the first time advocates of laws to restrict the chemicals have had a fire safety leader at their podium: Vyto Babrauskas, a Wisconsin-based consultant with a doctoral degree in fire protection engineering from UC Berkeley who has researched the state's chemical-heavy safety standard. Chemicals in couches are not doing Californians any favors, Babrauskas says.
While working for National Institute for Standards and Technology, a federal agency, Babrauskas said he lit couches and chairs on fire and found that they give off the same amount of heat when burning with or without flame-retardant chemicals.
And he cited a lengthy federal study that found that couches with chemical-laced foam are equally likely to catch fire as chemical-free furniture in the first place. The chemicals currently in use would only be effective in large quantities that would be neither affordable to consumers nor desirable to those concerned about adverse health effects, Babrauskas said.
With the current California standard, "they put in a enough flame retardants for environmentally undesirable consequences, but not enough to stop the fire,” Babrauskas said. “It’s really the worst of both possible worlds.”
During Leno’s previous efforts to mandate studies or alternatives for flame retardant chemical use, opponents from chemical companies have argued that the risk of a furious blaze is far greater than the risks identified in studies about hormone disruption and fertility.
Efforts to reach the chemical industry lobbying group, Citizens for Fire Safety, were unsuccessful. The group's tax form identifies their executive director as Sacramento consultant Grant Gillham, whose website says he gives “deliberate advice on … swaying public perceptions."
The group does mention its ties to the chemical industry in one section of its website: "A portion of our funding which comes from various chemical industry leaders is directed towards funding further study of available flame-retardants and alternatives with the American Burn Association. These leaders in flame-retardant technology work with Citizens for Fire Safety in order to ensure that fire prevention tools are both effective and environmentally friendly."