This past month, Governor Jerry Brown announced a change to California’s fire retardant laws. In short, the new laws are designed to reduce (and possibly eliminate) the amount of fire retardant chemicals added to upholstered furniture, including juvenile furniture. But before we get into what this change means for consumers, let’s talk about what fire retardant chemicals (aka fire retardant chemicals) are, how this change happened, and why it matters.
Fire Retardant Chemicals in 1970s
Fire retardant chemicals came into widespread use in the 1970s. Guess where? You guessed it – baby pajamas. The federal government adopted a regulation requiring baby pajamas to pass a flammability test. Without thinking too much about it, baby pajamas manufacturers decided to add brominated tris fire retardant – up to 10% of the fabric’s weight – to make sure that their products passed the flammability test.
Brominated Tris Removed from Baby Pajamas
Most people probably know that before drugs are sold in the U.S., they undergo significant study by the Food and Drug Administration. Not so with chemicals that end up in consumer products. Most chemicals in the US are first used in consumer products without pre-market safety testing. Only later, some of the dangers are uncovered by independent researchers, but only if they have a reason (and the resources) to conduct such testing.
The same happened here with fire retardant chemicals. Two Green Science Policy Institute scientists, Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames, published the results of their research into brominated tris. They discovered scientific evidence that this fire retardant chemical is a DNA mutagen and carcinogen. As a result of their research, brominated tris was banned from baby pajamas in 1978. You would think that this would be great news and little babies were saved from cancer. Wrong! That was only the beginning of the fire retardant conundrum we are in right now.
Yes, brominated tris was removed from baby pajamas but three things happened afterward. (1) As often happens in the case of a banned chemical, brominated tris was replaced with another toxic fire retardant, chlorinated tris. (2) Brominated tris was used in other baby products. (3) CA TB 117 was issued.
What is CA TB 117?
What is CA TB 117? The State of California was concerned about flames injuring and killing people and children. So, in good faith and believing it was doing the right thing, California adopted a law requiring that foam used as a filling in upholstered furniture and some children’s products comply with a 12-second open flame flammability test. At the time, the State of California did not know that the law would motivate most manufacturers to add toxic fire retardant chemicals to the foam – instead of finding non-toxic ways to pass the test.
Health Problems from Fire Retardant Chemicals
There are a large number of chemicals used as fire retardants. Most fire retardant chemicals are associated with numerous health problems. In animal studies, they are associated with reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, birth defects, learning disorders, hyperactivity, and cancer. In humans, fire retardant chemicals are linked to reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), infertility, birth defects, and hormonal changes, including thyroid disorders. Fire retardant chemicals get stored in the fat tissues of our bodies and our bodies have a very hard time getting rid of them. Fire retardant chemicals have even been found in breast milk. In 2003, the Environmental Working Group published a study revealing that breast milk of American mothers contained brominated fire retardant chemicals (PBDEs).
Fire retardant chemicals also adversely impact the eco-system, are found in water and in the tissue of animals and fish. Furthermore, when consumer products containing fire retardant chemicals burn, they produce dioxins and furans – chemicals that are responsible for flame deaths and injuries. They remain in our environment for a very long time. (source)
Consequences of California Fire Retardant Law
It is important to understand that TB 117 – even though it is a California law – has affected products made and sold in other states. California is the twelfth largest economy in the world (i.e. it is a larger marketplace than most countries). Manufacturers wishing to sell their products in California had to manufacture their products to California’s flammability standard. Since it is usually not cost efficient to manufacture the same item to two or more different standards, and since California’s standards are the most stringent in the country, this means that most furniture and children’s products sold in the U.S. are manufactured to meet California’s flammability standard; i.e., TB 117.
After TB 117 was issued, numerous studies pointed to the fact that fire retardant chemicals have been making us sick. In response, California decided to ban one fire retardant chemical at a time. However, that route was extremely hard, as the legislature received formidable push back from the chemical industry, which invested fortunes to fight any changes in the law. In the end, the lawmakers abandoned that route and decided to modify the flammability test itself that got us in trouble in the first place.
Flammability Test Changed
Scientists helped lawmakers understand that the flammability test requiring filling to withstand a 12-second open flame test did not protect people from flames. They showed that flames start in furniture covers, not deep within the cushions. Thus, under the new laws, the updated flammability standard requires only a smolder test of the furniture covers, and the requirement that the cushion material withstand an open flame for 12 seconds was dropped.
Other Changes to TB 117
There is another important aspect of the change to TB 117. The original regulation provided three exemptions (i.e. products to which the regulation did not apply): nursing pillows, strollers, and infant carriers. This means that these products did not have to meet the standard and thus did not require fire retardant chemicals. The revised regulation – known as TB 117-2013 – excludes 17 more baby products, such as infant walkers, booster seats, changing pads, floor play mats, high chair pads, high chairs, infant swings, bassinets, infant seats, infant bouncers, nursing pads, play yards, playpen side pads, infant mattresses, infant mattress pads, and portable hook-on chairs.
How to Reduce Exposure to Fire Retardants
Great news, right? Hopefully, but the proverbial jury is still out. First, although manufacturers can start complying with the new standard as early as January 1, 2014, the mandatory effective date is January 1, 2015. In the meantime, if you buy furniture, make sure that you see a label that reads “CA TB117-2013” as opposed to “CA TB117.” Second, while the new flammability test was designed to reduce and eliminate the need for toxic fire retardant chemicals, manufacturers may still use them – it is not illegal. So be sure to ask a manufacturer how the products they sell satisfy TB 117-2013. And lastly, sometimes items that do not need to meet flammability test requirements, such as nursing pillows or adult sleeping pillows, may still contain toxic fire retardant chemicals. I am not sure why. My guess is that the same fire retardant-treated foam is used across the board by the same company.
It is important to note here that while upholstered furniture (which includes juvenile upholstered furniture) is the most significant source of exposure to toxic fire retardant chemicals, it is not the only one. Fire retardant chemicals are also found in electronics, plastic home insulation, and cables and wires.
So, how do we reduce our exposure to ubiquitous toxic fire retardant chemicals? Fire retardant chemicals escape furniture and settle into the dust. We then inhale or ingest the dust. This is particularly true for crawling babies and toddlers. It is important to eliminate the dust in your house. When you dust, make sure that you use a damp cloth so the dust particles containing flame-retardants do not fly up into the air. Vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum. When I researched vacuums, I learned that it is important to have a vacuum that seals dust inside. Mop the floors in your house regularly. Reduce. It is easier to clean the house when you have less stuff. Also, less stuff means less potential to shed fire retardant chemicals. Wash your hands frequently, especially before you eat, so you do not ingest the dust on your hands.
The other way to reduce your exposure is to buy furniture that does not contain fire retardant chemicals. There are furniture makers that never added fire retardant chemicals to their products but instead were able to pass fire retardant tests with flame barrier and/or by using fabrics that are not so flammable as polyurethane foam (which is derived from petroleum by the way). Be sure to ask manufacturers to make sure that there are no fire retardant chemicals in their products. Some manufacturers will honor your request not to add fire retardant chemicals to the furniture you are buying. So speak up.
A version of this article was originally published on www.momsadvocatingsustainability.org. © MOMS Advocating Sustainability. It is reprinted here by permission.
I want to thank my husband, attorney Bill Webb of the Webb Legal Group of San Francisco, for his assistance in explaining the flame retardant law.
For a list of companies that do not use fire retardant chemicals, read my “Flame Retardant-Free Upholstered Furniture” post.
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