North Americans have some of the highest levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) chemicals in their bloodstream in the world and California has some of the strictest flame retardant policies in the United States. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not. While many view California as the most socially and environmentally progressive state in the nation, California Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, may have changed that opinion.
TB 117, a furniture flammability standard established in 1975, remains in effect today, despite great health, environmental and political opposition. The law calls for a unique 12 second open flame standard whereby any piece of furniture sold in California must not ignite within 12 seconds of exposure. This law is not only applied in California but in approximately 30% of furniture sold in the U.S. and Canada.
TB 117 has a particularly broad reach as the law focuses on the foam inside furniture and not just surface material. This includes bedding, box springs, seating and flexible polyurethane foam. Sadly, what was intended to be a protective life-saving measure in response to the 1950s cigarette craze is now leaving many citizens less concerned about a potential house fire and more concerned about what lurks within their household furniture on a daily basis; flame retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive abnormalities, learning disabilities and thyroid irregularity. Exposure is particularly hazardous for firefighters, pregnant women and children.
As for chemicals, from 1975 until 2004, TB 117 was met with penta-brominated diphenyl ether (pentaBDE), a chemical with known toxicity and persistence in humans and animals. Other chemicals used have historically included brominated or chlorinated flame retardants including brominated Tris, chlorinated Tris or TDCP, and the present Firemaster 500, which was introduced in 2004 as a replacement for pentaBDE and is currently under scrutiny by the U.S. EPA as a “safe” alternative to the previously used chemicals.
Nonetheless, numerous regulatory loopholes continue to exist. While a number of these chemicals have since been regulated from certain products in the United States, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that Deca, a form of PBDEs, is often unregulated and undetected and therefore continues to enter our bloodstream. In fact, EWG studies of umbilical cord blood found PBDEs present in 10 of 10 newborns.
Various California state bills attempting to address the negative health and environmental impacts of flame retardants, including Senator Leno’s SB 147, the “Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act,” and AB 2197, Assemblywoman Mitchell’s bill, have died in the state legislature predominantly due to chemical lobby opposition and influence. Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal body in charge of regulating national flame retardant policy, has historically been less stringent than California flame retardant policy.
Interestingly, CPSC staff published a memorandum titled “Environmental Assessment of Regulatory Alternatives for Addressing Upholstered Furniture Flammability” given rising public concern over hazardous chemical exposure in their homes. The memo discusses the importance of considering alternatives to standard upholstered fire retardants with respect to any negative health and environmental impact.
While flame retardants are prolific and the issue can be overwhelming, it’s important to stay educated and informed so you can make the best consumer decisions possible. Some options include asking your local retailer for organic mattress alternatives, writing to your representatives and being sure to inspect your furniture, particularly if you live in California, for the warning label stating:
“THIS ARTICLE MEETS THE FLAMMABILITY REQUIREMENTS OF CALIFORNIA BUREAU OF HOME FURNISHINGS TECHNICAL BULLETIN 117. CARE SHOULD BE EXERCISED NEAR OPEN FLAME OR WITH BURNING CIGARETTES.”
To learn more about flame retardants and what you can do to protect yourself, your family and our environment from chemical exposure, you can sign up for the following free, public webinar on April 19th:
Toxic Flame Retardants in Consumer Products: Health Dangers, the Need for Policy Changes, and What You Can Do.
Thursday April 19th, 11 am PACIFIC/ 2pm EASTERN. RSVP here
Facilitator: Judith Robinson, Environmental Health Fund
Arlene Blum, Green Science Policy Institute
Kathleen Curtis, Clean and Healthy New York
Michael Schade, Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Matt Vinci, Vermont firefighter
Host: Business Ethics Network
Photo Credit: Horia Varlan