California's Fire Code Update: The End of Toxic Flame Retardants?
When it comes to most regulatory issues in the United States, as California goes, so goes the nation. Usually the western state is pushing the rest of the country toward more progressive social policies or stiffer environmental regulations, but in a handful of cases California has set a more conservative tone. Its flammability standard, Technical Bulletin (TB 117), is one such case.
Since the 1970s, TB 117 has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. The California standard has functioned as a de facto national standard, resulting in extremely high concentrations of flame retardant chemicals in the American public, particularly babies and toddlers. Over the years, various flame retardants have been found to be excessively toxic for health and have been banned, only to be replaced by other harmful chemicals. In the late 1970s, for example, chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant chemical used to treat children’s pajamas, was found to be toxic and removed from children’s clothing. Recently, it turned up in furniture instead. The replacement for chlorinated Tris is a flame retardant called Firemaster 550. According to Arlene Blum, PhD, a chemist and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, scientists have struggled to get samples of Firemaster 550 to study.
“This chemical is very likely the number-one flame retardant used in products and we scientists cannot get samples of it to study,” Blum said on a press call this morning. “One sample was given out and Heather Stapleton was able to do one study from which it looks like it contributes to obesity and anxiety.”
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California Moves To Phase Out Harmful Chemicals
Today, California moved to address the flame retardant issue via an update to its flammability standard. The new proposed standard, TB 177-2013, would require smolder tests for fabrics, rather than open flame tests for foam, which should all but eliminate the need for flame retardants. That, according to policy makers at the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, was the point. “As an added benefit, this regulatory proposal significantly reduces or eliminates manufacturers’ reliance on materials treated with flame retardant chemicals,” the proposed Technical Bulletin reads. “It is the Bureau’s understanding that many manufacturers, who are no longer compelled to make materials open-flame resistant, will no longer use flame retardant chemicals in their products.”
The chemical industry has continued to support the need for chemical flame retardants, despite mounting evidence from scientists and public pressure, much of which was kicked off by a Chicago Tribune investigative series last year. ”Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement about studies linking flame retardants and health impacts late last year. “Statistics show that home fires from open flame ignition sources are still a significant problem,” the statement continued. “Flame retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards, and are designed to prevent fires from starting and if a fire does occur, slow its spread and provide valuable escape time. It’s important to remember that flame retardants currently in use, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and national regulators around the globe.”
However, the Chicago Tribune series discredited most, if not all, of the experts who have supported the need for flame retardants. The paper successfully unveiled the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, which had long advocated for flame retardants and posed as a nonprofit public interest group, as a front group funded by flame retardant manufacturers. Meanwhile scientists the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have supported claims that flame retardants in household furniture aren’t effective, and may pose unnecessary health risks.
Updates to California’s standard should eliminate the need for unnecessary chemicals, and unlike many regulations aimed at reducing chemical exposure, updates to the flammability standard should actually save companies money. “Manufacturers would instead be able to purchase and use the less expensive non-flame retardant materials therefore saving in material costs,” the draft standard states.