Editorial: Finally, toxic flame retardants aren't a mandate

02/25/2013 12:00 AM

03/27/2013 9:10 AM

Yes, California has a Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, also known as the Bureau of Home Furnishing, and, by some, the mattress cops.

Its name notwithstanding, the bureau proposes to overhaul an obscure but pernicious 1975 regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117, TB-117 for short. Bureaucratese aside, consumers will benefit.

Acting at Gov. Jerry Brown's direction, the mattress cops earlier this month proposed to alter TB-117, which requires that couches and some other home furnishings meet a particular type of flammability test in order to be sold in California.

Because of the change, furniture makers starting next year will not be required to load what Brown calls "toxic" flame retardants to the foam that forms couch cushions.

"California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries," Brown said last year when he told the bureau to change the standard.

The American Chemistry Council, representing flame retardant manufacturers, is trying to undermine the change. To its credit, the Brown administration shows no sign of bending. This one change could be one of the most significant steps this governor takes to protect the environment.

The issue had smoldered in the California Legislature for years. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pushed legislation to ban the flame retardants, or permit furniture to be sold without the chemicals. He lost, in the face of intense lobbying.

Many Democrats, who curry favor with environmentalists, voted against him despite concerns about the impact of the chemicals on public health and the environment. Most Republicans voted against Leno, even though his bills would have lifted an unnecessary regulatory burden from an industry, furniture makers.

The Chicago Tribune brought the issue to the fore last year by publishing a major investigative series focusing on the chemical industry's lobbying and questionable science behind the chemicals. Much of the paper's reporting focused on California, which developed the standard that prompted furniture makers nationwide to add the chemicals to their products.

The series noted that the advocates of flame retardants worked with the tobacco industry because cigarette makers viewed flame retardants as preferable to creating fire-resistance cigarettes. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that the chemicals provide no significant fire protection.

The chemicals escape from couch cushions and become a component of dust. A recent UC San Francisco study showed dust in homes in Bolinas and Richmond had 200 times more brominated flame retardants than European homes.

The MIND Institute at UC Davis summarized a recent study of one component of common flame retardants by saying the "chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power," and reported that the findings "bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders."

There is no good reason to keep these types of flame retardants in furniture, and many reasons to remove them. The Bureau of Home Furnishings reports there will be little impact on cost once its regulation takes effect.

Consumers will see little, if any, savings. But there will be less of one unnecessary and likely toxic chemical in the environment. That will be a welcome step forward.

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