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Jan Lee headshot

The Fight Over Chemical Flame Retardants

Words by Jan Lee

Lurking inside your bed, your couch, your carpet and the upholstery of your car is a secret arsenal. You can’t see it, you can’t usually smell it, and most of the time, you’re likely unaware that it’s even there.

The U.S. chemical industry will tell you that it’s there to save lives. And the truth is, in many cases it has. Since 1976 when the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed, says the North American FlameRetardant Alliance (NAFRA), deaths from furniture and furnishing fires have dropped dramatically. According to studies conducted during 1981-1985 and 2000-2007, “The number of fire deaths fell by 64 percent for furniture and furnishings [f&f] fires.” The American Chemistry Council (ACC) attributes that reduction to flame-retardant chemicals that slow the spread of a devastating house fire.

Chemical flame retardants: Are they helping?

But critics ask, at what cost? Improved technology now places the cause of some cancers, developmental problems and other diseases squarely on the types of chemicals we use in our homes. Substances that have long been used with the blessings of TSCA, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers and phosphate esters, are now showing up in our water, our food and have been detected in the air we breathe. Research has also linked childhood developmental problems to the chemicals found in our furniture and other upholstery

Organizations like Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Health Care Without Harm and Practice Green Health have long argued that spraying the interior of our beds and upholstery doesn’t just change the flammability of the furniture, it just subjects their users to an onslaught of toxic chemicals on a daily basis, and that there are better, safer ways to address f&f fire risk in our homes. 

California's new chem-free smolder test

While the federal government has been slow to implement changes to TSCA, advocates in California have been successful in getting the state standard changed so that furniture can be sold in California without flame retardant chemicals. Technical Bulletin 117 (TB-117-2013) puts the focus where the real issue is, says CEH Pollution Protection Co-Director Judy Levin, by testing the level of flammability of furniture where the fire actually starts: in the fabric.

“The smolder test actually addresses the major cause of fires, which is smoldering sources like cigarettes on fabrics,” says Levin, “because fires begin on the outside of furniture on the fabric, not on the inside foam, which is where TB, the old standard, tested.” 

Kaiser drops toxic chemical flame retardant

In June of this year, California-based HMO Kaiser Permanente embraced the change in the law, by announcing that it would no longer purchase furniture that contains flame-retardant chemicals. The announcement from one of the country’s largest not-for-profit health care providers sent reverberations through the healthcare sector and received instant response from NAFRA with a call for Kaiser to reconsider its decision.

“By prohibiting flame retardants in furniture at its facilities, Kaiser will increase its reliance on technologies designed to reduce the effects of a fire after it has started (e.g., sprinklers), rather than preventing fires from starting in the first place,” Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, which sponsors NAFRA, said in an open letter to the HMO.

But Levin says that isn’t what organizations are advocating. Improved technology now allows furniture manufacturers to choose denser fabrics and construction methods that are naturally more fire resistant. Materials that weren’t as easy to produce, or weren’t considered in vogue in our living rooms, like wool, latex or hemp have been proven to resist or slow the spread of fire. Better design, more focus on smolder tests and smarter choices of materials are removing the need for toxic chemicals in hospitals as well as homes.

Kathy Gerwig, who serves as Kaiser’s environmental stewardship officer, says the HMO’s decision has been a long time in the making.

“For many years, we have been pursuing a policy around safer chemicals and safer products and that has included targeting a variety of chemicals of concern, for which there is evidence that there might be harm from a health standpoint,” said Gerwig in a phone interview earlier this month. She said Kaiser was ready to start implementing changes to its purchasing methods when the update was implemented last year.

“We have terrific suppliers and they have been well aware of our desire to move to safer products for a very long time,” said Gerwig. She said earlier studies by Kaiser allowed the HMO to determine what kinds of sustainable fabrics might work in a hospital setting. “So it’s no surprise to our furniture [suppliers] that we would want to move in this direction.”

Healthier Hospital Initiative's growing base

Health Care Without Harm’s safer chemicals director, Rachel Gibson, said finding ways to transition away from toxic flame-retardant chemicals has become a movement spearheaded by several committed organizations that feel it’s important to safeguard safety standards in healthcare settings.

“Two years ago, Health Care Without Harm, along with Practice Green Health, launched the Healthier Hospitals initiative,” said Gibson in a recent interview. The initiative brought together hospitals, national and state organizations all across the healthcare sector, and provided further initiative to California’s unprecedented decision to modify the way flammability standards are addressed.

It also offered a challenge to hospitals to change the way they look at health care.

“[Hospitals] that enroll in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative commit to one of three challenges. As a baseline, they have to commit to the overall elimination of mercury in hospitals,” said Gibson. They also agree to commit to one of three challenges “and one of those challenges focuses on [the sustainability of] interior furnishings,” like beds, medical equipment, waiting room furniture, and carpets and their long-range conversion to products that use environmentally safe materials and don’t contain chemical flame retardants. She pointed out that getting rid of flame retardants falls under the broader goal of "safer chemicals," which a growing number of hospitals have already endorsed as a personal goal.

The HHI’s own goal is to get as many hospitals to join their coalition as possible, and the support that Kaiser has received for its decision has served as great encouragement for many institutions.

Gerwig said the HMO has already garnered interest from a number of other healthcare providers that are looking for ways to transition to more sustainable products. Many have already joined HHI and started their own list of sustainability goals.

“I expect in the not-too-distant future that we will see other systems coming out with similar systems to ours that basically tell their supply chain that they want to avoid chemical flame retardants in their upholstered furniture,” Gerwig said.

Federal Reforms Still Stalled

For healthcare providers, just like private citizens who reside outside of California, however, purchasing furnishings that don’t have chemical flame retardants in them is still a problem, said CEH’s Judy Levin, and largely because of the clout that lobbyists for chemical coalitions like the ACC and NAFRA have in Washington.

“The [U.S.] American Chemistry Council is a very powerful lobby and [it has] been successful in creating doubt and uncertainty in the legislature and continues to perpetuate myths that flame retardants equal fire safety. And they present this false dichotomy, that you either can flame retardant or you can have fire [heightened fire risk], and that’s simply not true,” said Levin.

Andy Igrejas, who serves as the director to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said that there is ongoing effort to get Congress to update TSCA, but it remains a slow process.

“The TSCA reform legislation has been stalled as the chemical industry has insisted on a version of reform that contradicts mainstream scientific and medical recommendations and also the principals for reform laid out by the Obama administration,” said Igrejas.

And even though some of those flame retardants are currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency, Igrejas said progress in changing the legislation remains at a crawl. “I don't think TSCA reform is likely to move in the near term unless the chemical industry changes heart and accepts basic minimum precepts of reform like a health-based standard that explicitly protects pregnant women and children.”

He said the chemical industry’s continuing demand has been an impediment to efforts to upgrade TSCA.

“Flame retardants are a great example of our broken chemical safety system. Until the federal government can put in place a system that 1) removes known harmful chemicals and 2) requires the rest to undergo a thorough safety review that adheres to modern scientific standards, it will be entirely up to states and enlightened players in the private sector like Kaiser,” said Igrejas.

Those Great Chemicals: Benign by Design

Contrary to common opinion, said Gerwig, it is possible to make better chemicals, just like it’s possible to make better furniture that isn’t toxic to those who use it.

“There are plenty of great chemicals out there, and there are plenty of chemicals of concern. And the thing that separates them is that the great chemicals have been tested and the consequences of them on human health and the environment are understood and manufacturers who are interested in green chemistry are developing chemicals that are benign by design, as the saying goes. That is what we would like to see more of,” Gerwig said.

Dedicated in memory of May Thiem, 1920-2014, former cancer survivor.

Image of Kaiser's South Sacramento's waiting room courtesy of Kaiser Permanente

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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