California's Flammability Standard Puts Children at Risk

A study published this week in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives is further evidence that California children are the most highly exposed to flame retardant chemicals. Based on the results of this and previous studies, it is likely these high levels of exposure to flame retardant chemicals are due to the unique furniture flammability standards in the state.  

The study done by UC Berkeley researchers measured a group of flame retardants, called PBDEs, in 264  Mexican-American children born and raised in California  and compared their levels to 283 children born and raised in the same areas of Mexico from where their mothers had emigrated.  

What they found was startling and disturbing: the California children’s levels of PBDEs were seven times higher, on average, than levels in the Mexican children. The California children, who were 7 years old, had three times higher levels of PBDEs than their mothers. And most disturbing, the California children had the highest PBDE levels ever measured in a U.S. study of children. The only study which has ever reported higher levels of PBDE exposure was in children living and working in hazardous waste sites in Nicaragua.

Flame retardants are a group of chemicals added to many consumer products such as electronics, furniture foam, carpeting, curtains, automobiles and even children’s products. California has a unique flammability standard, TB 117, for upholstered furniture sold in the state. All upholstered foam furniture in California must be in compliance with this standard and though the standard doesn’t require the use of chemicals, the cheapest way to meet it has been to impregnate furniture foam with a lot of flame retardant chemicals. Millions of pounds of flame retardant chemicals are used for just this purpose, every year.

The trouble is -- as well-intentioned as the standard may be -- it has never been proven to be effective. Improved building codes requiring smoke detectors and water sprinklers, self-extinguishing cigarettes, and overall decreased rates of smoking have probably had a much bigger impact on the number of fires and fire deaths than the flammability standard.   

The other problem with flame retardants in upholstered furniture is that they don’t stay put in the foam but migrate out and attach to dust particles which are inhaled or ingested. California homes have up to ten times higher amounts of PBDEs in house dust when compared to other parts of the U.S. or Canada. For young children, dust is the biggest source of exposure to flame retardants. A lot of furniture outside of California also carries the TB 117 label, and as a result, the U.S. population is much more highly exposed than anywhere else in the world.

PBDEs are a well studied group of chemicals which are hormone-disruptors capable of interfering with thyroid hormone and sex hormones. Exposure to PBDEs has been associated with a wide range of health problems in humans including altered hormone levels, abnormal development of the brain resulting in loss of IQ points, impaired fertility including longer time to pregnancy, decreased sperm counts and altered menstrual cycles.

Though certain PBDEs have been banned in California since 2004 and then were voluntarily withdrawn from the market, prior to this most furniture was treated with a PBDE formulation called penta-BDE. A lot of this furniture is still in use today.

After all, how old is your couch?

The penta-BDE formulation is a mixture of several different types of PBDEs and it was these forms of PBDE which were found at the highest levels in this new study.

If you have a newer piece of furniture, you may be wondering what is being done now to meet the flammability standard since PBDEs are no longer being used. The answer is that we don’t know for sure, but we have good evidence that other toxic chemicals are being used as replacements.

For example, do you remember when a flame retardant was banned in kid’s pajamas in the 1970s? This was because the flame retardant, Tris, was found to cause cancer in animals. Tris was removed from kid’s pajamas but it was not banned from any other use. And guess what – it is being used a flame retardant in furniture foam!

As one toxic chemical is removed and another toxic steps in as a replacement, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether or not this is really needed.

Flame retardants are not proven to be effective in preventing fires or deaths.

Their use in furniture foam is contaminating our homes and contaminating our bodies. Children are most sensitive to these exposures because their bodies are still growing and developing. Californian children are the most highly exposed to these chemicals.

A common sense solution to this is to change the California flammability standard so that fire safety can be preserved without compromising public health.

Senator Leno in California has proposed to do just that by introducing the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act. This legislation calls for an alternative flammability standard that can be met without the use of chemical fire retardants, and that does not compromise fire safety. It will replace the outdated standard, TB 117, which was implemented before anyone fully knew about the toxicity of these chemicals and their ability to enter our bodies.

If you live in California, we need your help to get this legislation passed.  Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles is a co-sponsor of this bill and has information on their website on how to get involved.

I’ll be posting updates here as well.

 In addition, I'd like to add to this story that the problem of one toxic flame retardant being phased out only to be replaced by another has happened because of the weak federal law regulating the use of most chemicals in consumer products.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), first passed in 1976, was intended to prevent this problem from happening. Because the law has never been updated and because there are a lot of weaknesses in the law, it has been ineffective for over 35 years.  NRDC has been leading efforts to revise TSCA and ensure that chemicals in our everyday products are known to be safe BEFORE they are introduced into commerce.

Fortunately, there have been calls from all sides to update this law, and just yesterday legislation was introduced by Senator Lautenberg to reform TSCA. We are in strong support of this bill and will be updating our website with new information.


This post was first published on NRDC's Switchboard blog.