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Calif. law change sparks debate over use of flame retardants in furniture

January 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Flame retardants are commonplace in most upholstered furniture to help prevent house fires. But studies have linked the chemicals to cancer and fertility problems, prompting California to change the state's furniture flammability standards. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how the move could have a ripple effect across the country.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the new regulations in California centers on the effort to limit the amount of flame retardants in furniture. This is an issue of particular concern to parents of young children.

ADRIENNE CLEM, mother: Oink, oink.

MAN: Oink, oink.

MAN: That’s right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Silicon Valley tech workers Adrienne and Jeremy Clem are the proud parents of 18-month-old Vivienne and expecting their second child next month. They have spent a lot of time researching baby gear, and one of their main concerns was finding products without flame retardants, chemicals which slow the ignition of potentially flammable materials like textiles and plastics.

ADRIENNE CLEM: This is a nursing pillow without flame retardants. I did find it online just after doing a lot of searching. I was very actually surprised that it was hard to find products without them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Flame retardants were added to upholstered furniture and other household products starting in the mid-1970s to prevent house fires. But what seemed like a good idea came with a downside.

A number of studies have linked flame retardants to human health concerns such as cancer, neurological impairments and fertility problems. Some flame retardants have been banned by the federal government for health concerns. Others have been phased out voluntarily by manufacturers. But many remain in use today.

Worried about the possible health risks, the Clems recently purchased a $2,700 flame-retardant-free sofa from Ekla Home, one of the few manufacturers in the U.S. which makes naturally flame-resistant furniture using materials like wool.

ADRIENNE CLEM: For me, the peace of mind knowing that my children aren’t going to be exposed to these toxic flame retardants was enough to pay a bit of a premium on a sofa.

ARLENE BLUM, University of California, Berkeley: You probably have flame retardants in your couch, your chair, your office chair, if you have a baby, strollers, high chairs, nursing pillows, little baby positioners, car seats.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Arlene Blum is a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been leading the charge to get flame retardants out of homes.

She’s the founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, which studies chemicals in consumer products. And one of the first products she tested came from her own home.

ARLENE BLUM: This is a cushion from my couch that was in our home for many years, until, when I started doing this work, we analyzed for flame retardants. This couch, the foam was 5 percent penta. There are only 22 chemicals that have been globally banned, with 150 countries agreeing under the Stockholm Convention. Penta is one of those 22. I threw away the furniture, but I saved the cushion for research.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Blum, who has scaled many of the world’s highest peaks and was the focus of a documentary about a group of women climbers, is also known for her success efforts in the ’70s to remove a suspected cancer-causing flame retardant from children’s pajamas. Now she’s turning her sights on furniture. 

ARLENE BLUM: The chemicals are continuing coming out of the couch and they’re heavy. They drop into dust. And then you get some dust on your hand, eat a French fry would be the classic, and they end up in your body. Toddlers who crawl in the dust of course have high levels.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Blum and other concerned advocates have been pushing for state legislation to get rid of the chemicals, efforts which have been defeated after multimillion-dollar lobbying by flame retardant manufacturers, lobbying efforts that included paying a retired burn surgeon who repeatedly testified about infants that died of burns because there were no flame retardants to protect them.

In an award-winning investigative series, The Chicago Tribune dug into his testimony and found that there were no such cases, and that the doctor’s false testimony only supported retardant manufacturers. Following that series and after mounting pressure from the public and scientific community, California Governor Jerry Brown decided to act.

In November, he announced changes to the state’s furniture flammability standards, an act that didn’t require legislative approval. Products will no longer have to withstand a 12-second open-flame test. Instead, they will be required to past a smolder test that furniture manufacturers can meet without adding flame retardants to their products.

MARCELO HIRSCHLER, fire safety consultant: Flame retardants have saved lives. No question there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But not everyone is happy about the change. Marcelo Hirschler is a fire scientist in Mill Valley, California, and a consultant for the flame retardant industry.

He thinks it’s a mistake to take flame retardants out of extremely flammable furniture.

MARCELO HIRSCHLER: The amount of heat in an upholstered sofa is enough to burn down your entire house. We need to do something to prevent the flammability of the products that we’re sitting on. Flame retardants are an excellent tool when used appropriately.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Hirschler says even though the overall number of home fires and fire-related deaths have gone down dramatically, due in part to new building codes, fire alarms, and fewer people smoking, upholstered furniture remains a fire hazard.

MARCELO HIRSCHLER: We’re killing over 600 people a year from fires caused by upholstered furniture. So we’re killing a lot of people. The revision, that is a disaster. That is going to cause a lot more fire fatalities and fire incidents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But not all who battle fire agree.

Retired San Francisco firefighter Tony Stefani:

TONY STEFANI, San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation: My overall view of flame retardants is, they are not necessary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stefani is a survivor of a rare form of kidney cancer and president the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. He worries about his fellow first-responders, who rush into fires where the chemicals are released.

TONY STEFANI: When we go into a building on fire, we’re faced with a real toxic mess.

And these flame-retardant chemicals off-gas both furans and dioxin, which have been proven to cause cancer. We definitely feel that there is a link. We have had a lot of firefighters that have succumbed to brain cancer, colon cancer, forms of blood cancers like multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, several recent studies have found elevated levels of flame retardants in firefighters’ blood, and the profession has higher cancer rates than the general public, although a direct link between the two has not be made.

TOM OSIMITZ, North American Flame Retardant Alliance: The studies I have seen don’t lead me to cause — any cause for alarm with regard to exposure to humans.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tom Osimitz is a toxicologist who chairs the Science Advisory Committee of the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, which represents manufacturers. He says many of the health concerns about flame retardants are overblown.

TOM OSIMITZ: In many of these studies, there is a lot of confounding variables, exposures, whether it’s prenatal exposure to alcohol, stress, noise, all other types of agents people are exposed to.

If you take those into account and you look broadly at the bio-monitoring studies that have been done, there’s less than a convincing correlation, in my mind, between the presence of a chemical in the body and actual adverse effect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The state’s new regulations, which kicked in January 1, are expected to have a ripple effect throughout the country. That’s because furniture manufacturers in other states generally adhere to California’s standards. Industry representatives expect it will take about six months for flame-retardant-free furniture to become readily available in stores.