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Burned: How the Chemical Industry Is Endangering Lives With Toxic Flame Retardants

The Dangers of Toxic Flame Retardants from LAANE on Vimeo.

For years firefighters and environmentalists have warned of the dangers from upholstered furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, hormone disruption and lower IQ development. Although state safety regulations allow the use of flame retardants, they are not required — the choice is left to manufacturers. Today Californians wishing to buy a sofa or easy chair free of toxic chemicals are in for a surprise when they try to get information in stores about the presence or absence of flame retardants. An informal survey of West Los Angeles furniture showrooms recently encountered these scenes:

  • When asked whether a $579 sofa contained such chemicals, a salesman at Macy’s Furniture Gallery on West Pico Boulevard said he did not know and suggested trying the store’s website — which included no information about flame retardants.
  • At the nearby upscale LA Furniture Store a saleswoman assured a potential customer that all furniture sold in the United States is “flame protected.” She did not know, however, whether a sofa on sale for $1,680 contained flame retardants and said she could not move the couch to look at its label.
  • One salesman at Urban Home, which sells more modestly priced furniture, admitted hearing something about the controversy over flame-retardant chemicals, but didn’t know whether a $399 sofa contained them. He lifted up the couch, but its label didn’t indicate their presence or absence.
None of this is news to Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director of the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.“People have a very important decision to make that goes beyond color or style when they purchase furniture,” Levin says, adding that currently “there’s no way for consumers to go into a store and really find out whether a piece of furniture that’s going to be in their home for decades contains flame-retardant chemicals.”
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Burned: How the Chemical Industry Is Endangering Lives With Toxic Flame Retardants

 

For years firefighters and environmentalists have warned of the dangers from upholstered furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, hormone disruption and lower IQ development. Although state safety regulations allow the use of flame retardants, they are not required — the choice is left to manufacturers. Today Californians wishing to buy a sofa or easy chair free of toxic chemicals are in for a surprise when they try to get information in stores about the presence or absence of flame retardants. An informal survey of West Los Angeles furniture showrooms recently encountered these scenes:

  • When asked whether a $579 sofa contained such chemicals, a salesman at Macy’s Furniture Gallery on West Pico Boulevard said he did not know and suggested trying the store’s website — which included no information about flame retardants.
  • At the nearby upscale LA Furniture Store a saleswoman assured a potential customer that all furniture sold in the United States is “flame protected.” She did not know, however, whether a sofa on sale for $1,680 contained flame retardants and said she could not move the couch to look at its label.
  • One salesman at Urban Home, which sells more modestly priced furniture, admitted hearing something about the controversy over flame-retardant chemicals, but didn’t know whether a $399 sofa contained them. He lifted up the couch, but its label didn’t indicate their presence or absence.

None of this is news to Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director of the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

“People have a very important decision to make that goes beyond color or style when they purchase furniture,” Levin says, adding that currently “there’s no way for consumers to go into a store and really find out whether a piece of furniture that’s going to be in their home for decades contains flame-retardant chemicals.”

According to Levin and other environmental experts, that flame retardants in furniture do not provide a meaningful fire safety benefit because, they say, the retardants are placed into the interior foam. Yet people don’t typically sit on bare foam, but on foam that is covered by an upholstery fabric. In an actual fire, this fabric is the first substance to ignite and once it begins to burn, the flames become much larger than the flame retardants inside the foam are equipped to handle. The result, Levin and others claim, is that people get the toxic exposure from the burning flame retardants without the fire safety benefit.

Environmentalists also say that flame-retardant chemicals continually migrate out of upholstered furniture and can be absorbed or inhaled into the body and bloodstream. “Children are  more vulnerable because the main route is through contaminated house dust,” says Veena Singla, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that babies and toddlers face particular dangers when they crawl on floors.

State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill co-sponsored by Levin’s group that would require upholstered furniture manufacturers to clearly disclose whether or not furniture sold in California contains flame-retardant chemicals. The information would be provided on the product labels that are already required by current regulations.

“It’s very simply a free-market, consumer-choice piece of legislation,” Leno says.

“This is a right-to-know bill,” agrees Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. “Consumers want to know if they are bringing an unhealthy piece of furniture into their homes.”

Senate Bill 1019, having been approved by that chamber, will be taken up by an Assembly committee June 24 and is likely to be voted on by the full Assembly later this summer. It is also co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California Professional Firefighters union. (Disclosure: the union is a financial sponsor of Capital & Main.) It is the plight of firefighters, who cannot exercise consumer choices when they battle conflagrations, that has given the bill its emotional momentum.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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