This month, Governor Jerry Brown announced a change to California’s flame retardant laws. In short, the new laws are designed to reduce (and possibly eliminate) the amount of flame retardant chemicals added to upholstered furniture, including juvenile furniture. But before we get into what this change means for consumers, let’s talk about what flame retardant chemicals (aka fire retardant chemicals) are, how this change happened, and why it matters.
Flame Retardant Chemicals in 1970s
Flame retardant chemicals came into widespread use in the 1970s. Guess where? You guessed it – baby pajamas. The federal government adopted a regulation requiring baby pajamas to pass a flammability test. Without thinking too much about it, baby pajamas manufacturers decided to add brominated tris flame retardant – up to 10% of the fabric’s weight – to make sure that their products passed the flammability test.
Brominated Tris Removed from Baby Pajamas
Most people probably know that before drugs are sold in the U.S., they undergo significant study by the Food and Drug Administration. Not so with chemicals that end up in consumer products. Most chemicals in the US are first used in consumer products without pre-market safety testing. Only later, some of the dangers are uncovered by independent researchers, but only if they have a reason (and the resources) to conduct such testing.
The same happened here with flame retardant chemicals. Two Green Science Policy Institute scientists, Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames, published the results of their research into brominated tris. They discovered scientific evidence that this flame retardant chemical is a DNA mutagen and carcinogen. As a result of their research, brominated tris was banned from baby pajamas in 1978. You would think that this would be great news and little babies were saved from cancer. Wrong! That was only the beginning of the flame retardant conundrum we are in right now.
Yes, brominated tris was removed from baby pajamas but three things happened afterwards. (1) As often happens in the case of a banned chemical, brominated tris was replaced with another toxic flame retardant, chlorinated tris. (2) Brominated tris was used in other baby products. (3) CA TB 117 was issued.
What is CA TB 117?
What is CA TB 117? The State of California was concerned about flames injuring and killing people and children. So, in good faith and believing it was doing the right thing, California adopted a law requiring that foam used as a filling in upholstered furniture and some children’s products comply with a 12-second open flame flammability test. At the time, the State of California did not know that the law would motivate most manufacturers to add toxic flame retardant chemicals to the foam – instead of finding non-toxic ways to pass the test.
Health Problems from Flame Retardant Chemicals
There are a large number of chemicals used as flame retardants. Most flame retardant chemicals are associated with numerous health problems. In animal studies, they are associated with reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, birth defects, learning disorders, hyperactivity, and cancer. In humans, flame retardant chemicals are linked to reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), infertility, birth defects, and hormonal changes, including thyroid disorders. Flame retardant chemicals get stored in the fat tissues of our bodies and our bodies have a very hard time getting rid of them. Flame retardant chemicals have even been found in breast milk. In 2003, the Environmental Working Group published a study revealing that breast milk of American mothers contained brominated flame retardant chemicals (PBDEs).
Flame retardant chemicals also adversely impact the eco-system, are found in water and in the tissue of animals and fish. Furthermore, when consumer products containing flame retardant chemicals burn, they produce dioxans and furans – chemicals that are responsible for flame deaths and injuries. They remain in our environment for a very long time.
Consequences of California Flame Retardant Law
It is important to understand that TB 117 – even though it is a California law – has affected products made and sold in other states. California is the twelfth largest economy in the world (i.e. it is a larger marketplace than most countries). Manufacturers wishing to sell their products in California had to manufacture their products to California’s flammability standard. Since it is usually not cost efficient to manufacture the same item to two or more different standards, and since California’s standards are the most stringent in the country, this means that most furniture and children’s products sold in the U.S. are manufactured to meet California’s flammability standard; i.e., TB 117.
After TB 117 was issued, numerous studies pointed to the fact that flame retardant chemicals have been making us sick. In response, California decided to ban one flame retardant chemical at a time. However, that route was extremely hard, as the legislature received formidable push back from the chemical industry, which invested fortunes to fight any changes in the law. In the end, the lawmakers abandoned that route and decided to modify the flammability test itself that got us in trouble in the first place.
Flammability Test Changed
Scientists helped lawmakers understand that the flammability test requiring filling to withstand a 12-second open flame test did not protect people from flames. They showed that flames start in furniture covers, not deep within the cushions. Thus, under the new laws, the updated flammability standard requires only a smolder test of the furniture covers, and the requirement that the cushion material withstand an open flame for 12 seconds was dropped.
Other Changes to TB 117
There is another important aspect of the change to TB 117. The original regulation provided three exemptions (i.e. products to which the regulation did not apply): nursing pillows, strollers, and infant carriers. This means that these products did not have to meet the standard and thus did not require flame retardant chemicals. The revised regulation – known as TB 117-2013 – excludes 17 more baby products, such as infant walkers, booster seats, car seats, changing pads, floor play mats, highchair pads, highchairs, infant swings, bassinets, infant seats, infant bouncers, nursing pads, play yards, playpen side pads, infant mattresses, infant mattress pads, and portable hook-on chairs.
How to Reduce Exposure to Flame Retardants
Great news, right? Hopefully, but the proverbial jury is still out. First, although manufacturers can start complying with the new standard as early as January 1, 2014, the mandatory effective date is January 1, 2015. In the meantime, if you buy furniture, make sure that you see a label that reads “CA TB117-2013” as opposed to “CA TB117.” Second, while the new flammability test was designed to reduce and eliminate the need for toxic flame retardant chemicals, manufacturers may still use them – it is not illegal. So be sure to ask a manufacturer how the products they sell satisfy TB 117-2013. And lastly, sometimes items that do not need to meet flammability test requirements, such as nursing pillows or adult sleeping pillows, may still contain toxic flame retardant chemicals. I am not sure why. My guess is that the same flame retardant-treated foam is used across the board by the same company.
It is important to note here that while upholstered furniture (which includes juvenile upholstered furniture) is the most significant source of exposure to toxic flame retardant chemicals, it is not the only one. Flame retardant chemicals are also found in electronics, plastic home insulation, and cables and wires.
So, how do we reduce our exposure to ubiquitous toxic flame retardant chemicals? Flame retardant chemicals escape furniture and settle into the dust. We then inhale or ingest the dust. This is particularly true for crawling babies and toddlers. It is important to eliminate the dust in your house. When you dust, make sure that you use a damp cloth so the dust particles containing flame-retardants do not fly up into the air. Vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum. When I researched vacuums, I learned that it is important to have a vacuum that seals dust inside. Mop the floors in your house regularly. Reduce. It is easier to clean the house when you have less stuff. Also, less stuff means less potential to shed flame retardant chemicals. Wash your hands frequently, especially before you eat, so you do not ingest the dust on your hands.
The other way to reduce your exposure is to buy furniture that does not contain flame retardant chemicals. There are furniture makers that never added flame retardant chemicals to their products but instead were able to pass flame retardant tests with flame barrier and/or by using fabrics that are not so flammable as polyurethane foam (which is derived from petroleum by the way). Be sure to ask manufacturers to make sure that there are no flame retardant chemicals in their products. Some manufacturers will honor your request not to add flame retardant chemicals to the furniture you are buying. So speak up.
Here is a list of companies that do not use flame retardant chemicals:
For a more detailed list of places where to buy flame retardant-free furniture, visit my blog, I Read Labels For You.
Interested in knowing more? On November 25, 2013, HBO premiered a great documentary movie called Toxic Hot Seat. The movie follows a group of courageous mothers, scientists, flame fighters, activists, and politicians who fight against the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals. Due to the heroic efforts of these people, the major flame retardant law has been amended. Watch the movie and let MOMAS know if you are interested in hosting or attending a screening of the film.
For more information about flame retardant chemicals, visit:
Green Science Policy Institute: http://greensciencepolicy.org
Safer Chemicals Healthy Families: http://www.saferchemicals.org
Toxic Hot Seat: http://www.toxichotseatmovie.com
I want to thank my husband, attorney Bill Webb of the Webb Legal Group of San Francisco, for his assistance in explaining the flame retardant law.
Irina Webb is an enthusiastic new MOMAS volunteer. Irina Webb researches and publishes a wealth of free information on methods and products people can use to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. She started her blog, www.ireadlabelsforyou.com, when she learned of the lack of non-toxic baby products and the lack of regulations governing them. She also privately consults with expectant mothers to help them put together nontoxic baby registries, and with anyone wishing to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.