The Political Firestorm Inside Your Sofa
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When it comes to environmental policy, no state has paved the way more often than California.
Californians didn't just invent iPads and commercial microprocessors; they brought to life laws promoting clean water, clean air, laws that eventually went on to become national policy, credited with cleaning up vast swaths of the country.
But sometimes, the picture is less clear. That’s the case with TB 117, a pioneering California law that many scientists now say was a big mistake.
One of those scientists is chemist Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, a non-profit group in Berkeley.
I met Blum at a furniture store in Berkeley. Standing in front of a three-seated sofa, she lifted a cushion and read aloud from the small white tag sewn into the fabric.
“This article meets the flammability requirements of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117."
A California law's mixed legacy
TB 117, as it’s called, is a state law passed in 1975. It says that the foam inside upholstered furniture must be able to resist a flame, for example, from a cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without catching fire.
Manufacturers meet this law by treating the foam with several different kinds of chemicals, up to two pounds of flame retardant chemicals in an average-size sofa, according to Don Lucas, a flammability expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Even though the law is specific to California, it affects furniture sold across the country. Major furniture dealers sell California-compliant products in all 50 states, and Canada.
The problem, say Blum and others, is that the chemicals don’t just stay inside the sofas. They turn up in household dust and can be detected in human blood and breast milk. Toddlers often have higher levels of the chemicals in their bodies than adults do.
"One study found that the levels of PBDEs found in bodies of toddlers are similar to what you'd find in people who work in a recycling foam factory. That's two to ten times what you'd find in adults," says Ami Zota, a researcher with UCSF's Program on reproductive Health and the Environment.
"There's a growing body of evidence demonstrating effects in animals, and not just lab animals, but birds and marine mammals," says Linda Birnbaum, who directs the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.
Birnbaum says while effects in humans are less certain, there is good evidence to suggest that some flame retardants, particularly a class called PBDEs, which have been largely phased out sine 2004, can affect the reproductive system, nervous system, as well as learning, memory, and behavior in children.
Some flame retardant chemicals cause cancer in lab animals. Observational studies of humans suggest connections between the chemicals and infertility, low-birth weight and abnormal brain development in kids.
One chemical, known as tris, was used widely in children's pajamas until the 1970s, when scientists, including Arlene Blum, campaigned successfully for a phase out. Tris is considered carcinogenic under California's Proposition 65 but is still used widely in furniture and also turns up in baby products, such as nursing pillows and changing pads.
Industry fights change
State lawmakers have tried — and failed — five times to change California's law in ways that would reduce or eliminate the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture.
Four of those attempts came from one lawmaker, State Senator Mark Leno, who represents Marin and San Francisco.
Leno’s last bill, SB 147 had the support of furniture makers, firefighter groups, and doctors. All of them wanted the chemicals out of furniture. But the bill was killed in committee by a vote of seven to one.
Each of the lawmakers who voted on the bill had received campaign contributions from the chemical industry.
Leno says it's not hard to see those lobbying dollars in action.
Whenever one of his flame retardants bills would come up for a vote, he says, he’d pay a visit to each of the committee members, just before the vote, to make his case. But the lobbyists outnumbered him.
“Repeatedly, as I would leave a colleague’s office, an hour or two before the committee hearing racing to get to another office, in the waiting room of the office I’m leaving is a lobbyist for the chemical industry. So they’d have the last word,” says Leno.
(Update: Read about how a Seattle burn doctor misled California lawmakers with the fictional story of an infant burn victim in the Chicago Tribune's four-part series, "Playing with Fire.")
In February, a state lawmaker, Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, from Los Angeles, introduced — and then quickly withdrew — her own bill on the topic. A spokesperson said Mitchell decided she was too busy, but would pick it up next year. Since 2011, Mitchell has taken $3,500 from the chemical industry.
(For more on how campaign dollars from the chemical industry have helped keep flame retardants in furniture, see Liza Gross' 2011 special report in Environmental Health News, "Money to Burn.")
It’s hard to find supporters of TB 117 who aren’t in some way connected to the same companies that produce flame retardant chemicals.
Joe Lang is a former tobacco lobbyist with the firm Lang, Hansen, O'Malley & Miller, in Sacramento, whose clients include the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry group.
At a hearing last April, Lang argued that changes to the California law are unnecessary because many of the most harmful flame retardants, a group called PBDEs, have already been banned. Newer alternatives, he said, are safer than the old ones. He said that over-regulating this industry would squelch innovation.
“If we continue to ban chemicals that are developed before they're used, we won't have any chemicals to be used. We won't be able to create the jobs we want to create in California.”
Do flame retardants in furniture prevent fires?
Lang and others in the industry say that flame retardant chemicals, and the law that requires them, TB 117, serve a critical purpose: They prevent fires.
Donald Lucas, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab scientist, and his colleague Vyto Babrauskas researched exactly this question: Do flame retardant chemicals prevent fires?
“Our conclusions were that we really don’t need the flame retardants in the foam in home furnishing," said Lucas. We don’t think the TB 117 standard is very good.”
The chemicals don’t work, he says, because fires don’t start inside sofas. They start on the surface of the sofa, on the fabric. California's flammability law, TB 117 law says nothing about the fabric, just the foam.
“Once the fabric catches on fire, the flame that the foam is exposed to is much larger than the flame in the test,” says Lucas.
At that point, there’s nothing chemicals can do. It’s too late.
“The foam is going to burn anyway.”
In fact, there are far fewer fires today than there were in the 1970s, when TB 117 was written. Fewer smokers, as well as laws requiring smoke detectors and sprinklers have made homes safer. These days, most fires start in the kitchen, not on a sofa.
That’s one reason even fire fighters have had a change of heart on the subject of flame retardants.
Tom O’Connor, a fire fighter in San Francisco, says fires these days are a toxic soup of chemicals, thanks, in part, to chemically-treated furniture.
O'Connor, and others, believe they're seeing an epidemic of cancers among firefighters. San Francisco's Fire Department is one of several around the country participating in a study of firefighters and cancer run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
If flame-retardant chemicals in furniture are part of the problem, says O'Connor, "then obviously we want them out of the products of combustion, once we go into a burning building."
Given recent events in Sacramento, that change is unlikely to start happening, at least this year.
One California official could sidestep the legislature and change the law: Tonya Blood. She was appointed just last week as the new chief of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings. It’s the same agency that established TB 117 back in 1975. Blood’s office didn’t answer requests for an interview.