As a chemist, mother,
and Californian, I was dismayed when an East Coast scientific colleague said,
“I try to avoid furniture and other products with a California tag because
they’re full of toxic chemicals”.
The tag he was concerned about is found on furniture and baby products containing polyurethane foam sold in our state and indicates compliance with a unique California flammability
standard called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117). Products with such a
label are likely to contain toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals.
I know this only too well as three years ago I
reluctantly discarded my own very comfy blue couch and chair after learning the
foam inside contained high levels of a chemical associated with reduced IQ in
children, reduced fertility, thyroid problems, endocrine disruption and
cancer. Since then I have not had the
choice to buy new furniture that is both comfortable and non-toxic for use in
retardants leak out from our furniture, settle in dust, and are ingested into
our bodies. A recent UC Berkeley study found that California children have seven times higher amounts of these chemicals in their bodies than do children in
To protect our children, state Sen. Mark Leno is sponsoring SB 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act, which calls for an
alternative furniture standard that maintains fire safety and can be met
without flame retardants. This would mean
that I and other consumers could choose to buy furniture that is both fire-safe
However, at April
25 and May 2 Senate Business and Professions Committee hearings, Curren Price,
Bill Emmerson, Lou Correa, Ed Hernandez, Gloria Negrete McLeod, Juan Vargas,
Mimi Walters, and Mark Wyland, eight Senators charged with protecting consumers
and supporting business, voted "No" to the Leno bill. They appeared to ignore the statement in the Leno bill that fire safety cannot be compromised with an alternative standard and to be heavily influenced
by descriptions of burned childen from the sole three opposition witnesses, all
brought in by the flame retardant
chemical industry. The main opposition argument was that current flame
retardants are safe. However the most
common one in furniture today is the same one that Tris removed from kids pajamas
in the 1970s after it was shown to cause mutations and be likely to cause
On the Leno side, the support and testimony from California fire fighters, physicians, UC scientists, furniture and
foam manufacturers, health officers, the College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists, and citizens groups representing many thousands of Californiansdid
not appear to have influence with these eight Senators.
outrageously, the fire safety benefits of adding flame retardants to meet the 1975
flammability standard we follow, are questionable. According to Vyto
Babrauskas, the author of the only textbook ever written on furniture
flammability, TB117 is “so weak that it does not achieve any useful fire
safety purpose. A changed standard should be more effective, as it could not
possibly be any less effective.”
TB117 tests bare
foam’s resistance to a small flame. But the
foam in furniture lies beneath a layer of fabric. The fabric will ignite first and by the time the
flame reaches the foam, it is too large for the chemicals that meet TB117 to have
According to the furniture
industry, the TB117 flammability standard is a financial burden for manufacturers
who must make special lines for California. This furniture cannot be sold in some
European countries due to its toxicity.
Moreover, the flame retardant chemicals add to the cost of the furniture
while decreasing its durability.
So why can’t this
antiquated flammability standard be updated?
The three flame-retardant producers: Albermarle, Chemtura, and Israeli
Chemicals Limited, have a history of responding to California legislation for
fire safety without toxicity with multi-million dollar lobbying campaigns.
to SB147 was created by the same political operative who once worked at the
Tobacco Institute." said Andrew McGuire, a McArthur awardees who was
badly burned as a child and is Executive Director of the Trauma Foundation at
San Francisco General Hospital. "Our legislators need to do a better job
of watching out for the interests of their real constituents.”
My good news is
that since I got rid of my furniture, the level of toxic flame retardant in my
dust has decreased by a factor of thirty. My bad news is there is no comfortable place to
sit in my house as I cannot replace my discarded couch and chair with non-toxic
ones. This will continue for yet another year due to the choice of eight
California senators to listen to the flame retardant industry over the
interests of California business and consumers.
is a now two-year bill. Given Californian’s
increasing anger and concern at being forced to be exposed to toxic chemicals in
their furniture, I am optimistic that next year SB147 will pass and manufacturers
will no longer be forced to put dangerous and ineffective flame retardant
chemicals into their products. “Made for California” will not be a euphemism
for “Warning! Toxic Product!” And we
will all be able to sit both safely and comfortably on our couches.