Baykeeper Update

Governor Brown Acts to Reduce Flame Retardant Pollution

Soon, state regulations requiring furniture and other consumer products in California to be doused with toxic flame retardants will be revised, with input from environmental and human health advocates. Governor Jerry Brown ordered the revision on June 18.

Governor Brown’s action comes a week after San Francisco Baykeeper members and many other concerned Californians urged the change in regulations. The current standards don’t provide real protection from deadly fires, while California residents are absorbing these cancer-causing chemicals into our bodies, and huge quantities are washed into waterways where they threaten marine life.

"Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment. We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals," Brown said in a release.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation will draft a regulation this summer, then hold workshops and other opportunities for suggestions from the public. The goal is to put the new regulation in place in the next few months or, at the longest, in a year, according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

Flame retardant chemicals migrate from furniture and other products into household dust. Toddlers have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than adults because they play on the floor, put things in their mouths and ingest more dust. But we’re all exposed. Dust carries these chemicals into our waterways—including San Francisco Bay—and into our food supply and our bodies.

Scientific studies link brominated flame retardants (which are similar to the infamous and long-banned PCBs) to health problems that include cancer, endocrine disruption, thyroid harm, neurological impairments and reproductive problems. When pregnant women are exposed to these chemicals, their children may later have problems that include memory impairment and delayed sexual development.

Wildlife in San Francisco Bay also feel the impact of flame retardants. Top predator marine mammals like sea lions and predator birds such as peregrine falcons have the highest levels of the most common flame retardants, called PBDEs (or polybrominated diesthers).

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission studies have shown that California’s current standard provides no meaningful protection from deadly fires. And when applied to furniture in large amounts to meet California’s current standards, the chemicals actually increase the release of two gases that are responsible for 60-80 percent of fire deaths. (Read more about how flame retardants might create deadlier fires.)

Regulations requiring the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture arose when the media publicized stories about smoldering cigarettes causing deadly house fires. Instead of producing fire-safe cigarettes, the tobacco industry launched a campaign in support of flame retardant furniture. The chemical industry continues to benefit from this campaign today. (Read the recent Chicago Time exposé of the tobacco industry’s role in flame retardant regulations.)

Baykeeper applauds the governor for acting to protect California residents and wildlife from dangerous flame retardant chemicals. We will monitor the development of the new regulations and advocate for sensible rules that both provide fire safety and keep dangerous chemicals out of our water and our bodies.