A half century ago, asbestos seemed a wondrous material. Added to building insulation, brake pads and other products, the fibrous substance stopped the spread of fire and saved lives. But it has ended up killing countless others: Asbestos fibers lodge in the linings of the lungs, where they cause a fatal form of cancer called mesothelioma. There are more than 10,000 deaths per year due to the legacy of asbestos exposure.
Although asbestos is now rarely used in the United States, we face a similar health threat from other toxic flame retardants used in our furniture and baby products. These chemicals, with no proven fire safety benefit, could well be the asbestos of our time.
To protect our children from such flame retardants, state Sen. Mark Leno is sponsoring Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, which had its first – and possibly last – hearing Monday in the California Senate. The bill calls for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.
A study published last week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives provides strong support. The startling and disturbing result is that California Latino children have seven times higher levels of a toxic flame retardant in their blood than do children in Mexico.
This study points to California’s unique furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, as the major reason for the high retardant levels in our state.
A California home can contain a pound or more of retardants that are similar in structure and action to banned substances such as PCBs and DDT. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published this week in Environmental Science & Technology also finds high retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.
In humans, these chemicals are associated with reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function.
One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a cancer-causing flame retardant that my own research helped remove from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Tris is now back at high levels in our furniture to meet the California standard.
The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture. From 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And when during a fire the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.
So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?
The answer is aggressive lobbying from the three bromine producers: Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. Over a four-year period, California legislation for fire safety without toxicity was met with multimillion-dollar lobbying campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by these three companies.
At a Monday hearing of the Senate Business and Professions Committee, eight state senators – Curren Price, D-Inglewood; Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet; Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana; Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina; Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino; Juan Vargas, D-San Diego; Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel; and Mark Wyland, R-Solana Beach – voted “no” to Leno’s bill.
On the Leno side were 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. Opposed to the bill were three speakers who represent Citizens for Fire Safety. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe.
Given this great disparity of input, how could the bromine industry have received eight of nine committee members’ votes?
Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. We can act now to protect our children from a similar fate. The Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act does not ban any chemicals. It gives consumers the choice to buy products that are both fire safe and nontoxic.
The bill will be heard for a final vote Monday. For the health and safety of our state, could four of the eight senators who voted “no” change their minds and support SB 147 on Monday?