Remember that devil's dilemma, "Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death"? Now it seems that in an attempt to minimize death by burning, California lawmakers have inadvertently created a third option: slow death by chemical poisoning. No choice about it this time.
California law requires that chemical fire retardants be added not only to your living room sofa, chairs and electronics, but also to children's products like car seats, changing pads, gymnastics mats and nursing pillows for breastfeeding infants. Despite California being the only jurisdiction that requires it, most major furniture manufacturers, whether located here or abroad, add fire retardants to any furniture sold in the United States. These flame retardants are associated with lower IQs, undescended testicles in infants, lower birth weights, reduced fertility, hormone disruption, increased risks of cancer, liver and thyroid toxicity and genetic mutations.
The harmful effects of flame retardants were first documented in the late 1970s. We have since learned that these chemicals are unstable, migrating from furniture and baby products through house dust. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group showed that toddlers typically have three times the levels of flame retardants in their blood as their mothers -- not surprising given that small children spend a lot of time on the floor, where dust accumulates, and constantly put their hands in their mouths.
But here is the ultimate irony: after decades of tough California flame retardant laws, there is no evidence that they actually save lives. Rather, there is heightened concern that burning these chemicals may increase cancer risk to the firefighters who inhale smoke laden with these elevated levels of toxins. Firefighters, public health officials, doctors, furniture manufacturers and even sewage treatment agencies -- concerned that the flame retardants easily migrate from furniture into house dust, which, through house cleaning and other actions, is washed down the drain and into sewer systems-- are now calling for a change in California standards to provide equivalent fire safety alternatives that do not require the use of toxic chemicals.
Although many have tried to change this troubling situation in California, the legislature has failed to respond. Partisan politics and lobbying by special-interest trade associations like the American Chemistry Council and the Bromine Council have successfully killed legislation introduced by environmental champions like Mark Leno before it can even get out of committee. How can our elected leaders live with themselves when they know that they are failing to protect public health, especially that of our children?
It is time for Governor Jerry Brown to use his executive authority and bully pulpit to push state regulators to end rules requiring the use of toxic chemicals in furniture, gym mats and baby products sold in California. He should send a signal to legislative leaders that their passivity in the face of this very real danger to public health is unacceptable, by sponsoring legislation that ends the use of the toxic fire retardants poisoning our homes, our children and our environment.
Here's what you can do in the meantime:
- Vacuum your carpets, floors and furniture regularly.
- Damp-wipe your electronics with paper towels to minimize dust. (Dispose of towels in the trash to reduce sending toxic dust to marine environments.)
- Women who are pregnant or breast feeding should avoid exposure to house dust.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating.
- Buy products without polyurethane foam, as they are less likely to contain the brominated or chlorinated flame retardants.
- Avoid furniture, cushions and other products with the "Technical Bulletin 117" label.
- Buy flame-retardant-free baby products.
- Buy electronics that do not use flame retardants. Companies such as Nokia, Sony-Ericsson and Samsung are phasing out the use of flame retardants.
- Call your state senators and assembly members and ask them to support legislation offering consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is both fire-safe and nontoxic.
- Get involved. The Environmental Working Group, The Green Science Policy Institute and Physicians for Social Responsibility - Los Angeles all provide good resources and safer product information on their websites.
Follow Francesca Vietor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/francescavietor