Flame retardants: Chemical industry uses scare tactics

It’s the end of August and, like the rest of California, Sacramento is seeing temperatures rise. But over at the Capitol, legislators are sitting in the middle of a blizzard of alarmist rhetoric from the chemical industry about legislation to disclose the use of toxic flame retardants on furniture. From banner advertising to op-eds to a torrent of legislative attacks, the chemical lobby has unleashed a torrent of fear mongering about fire safety to take down SB 1019.

The tactic – a familiar one in this kind of special interest fight – is based on a simple principle: It’s hard to see clearly in the middle of a blizzard.  It’s time to melt away the industry’s misleading, and frankly insulting, scare tactics and offer the plain truth about fire safety from those who know it best – the men and women on the front lines.

Bottom line from the acknowledged national experts: chemical flame retardants don’t make a difference in fire safety.

The simple reality is this: The fire safety of California residents is not compromised by SB 1019, or by California’s updated upholstered furniture fire standard.

Seventy percent of all fire deaths associated with upholstered furniture are caused by smoldering ignitions. These types of ignitions are the center of California’s updated fire safety standard.  The chemical industry, through its $100 million a year trade organization the American Chemistry Council. has sought to retain an outdated “open flame” standard, virtually requiring the use of toxic flame retardants.

Not surprisingly, the old standard is good for industry profits, but it is not relevant to protecting firefighters or fire victims.  Who says? The National Fire Protection Association, the nation’s long-established independent authority on scientifically based fire safety standards used by fire agencies throughout the nation, including California. Last September, NFPA issued a white paper on upholstered furniture ignitions. Its conclusion: Toxic flame retardant foams “did not offer a practically, significantly greater level of open flame safety as did the untreated foams.”

Bottom line from the acknowledged national experts: chemical flame retardants don’t make a difference in fire safety.

Of course, since chemical flame retardants represent a $5 billion industry, the chemical lobby has about five billion reasons to make lawmakers and Californians think otherwise.  That’s why they’re working so hard. The ACC alone has spent close to $1 million this session on lobbying just in California, and over $6 million so far this year nationally. Their deceptive tactics have repeatedly been called out time and again, particularly for the use of paid consultants shopping suspect conclusions.  Their desperation is not surprising: If Californians aren’t scared about fire, their companies don’t make money.

For firefighters, and the people we’re sworn to serve, it is a potentially deadly deception. Medical studies have linked toxic flame retardants to job-related cancer in firefighters. Firefighters have a greater risk of death from job-related cancer than from firefighting. For Californians, these toxins have been linked to a whole host of serious health effects, including lower IQ and hyperactivity in children.

SB 1019 requires that these dangerous chemicals be disclosed on the tags of upholstered furniture. It doesn’t ban their use, but it does give consumers an option to make a safer choice … one without chemical flame retardants. Firefighters support it. So does a broad spectrum from environmentalists to furniture manufacturers.

Nobody … nobody … understands the source and spread of fire better than firefighters. The reason is pretty basic: Lives depend on it, including ours. Firefighters aren’t hired-gun academics shilling for a $5 billion industry. We’re not activists pursuing an environmental agenda.. We’re just the people whose job it is to know, see and feel fire, and work to keep it from spreading.

The industry’s blizzard of misinformation is dangerous, deceptive and an insult to our profession. We hope lawmakers will see through the storm and stand up for consumer choice.

Ed’s Note:  Lou Paulson is a retired Contra Costa fire captain and president of California Professional Firefighters, which represents 30,000 front line firefighters in nearly 180 affiliated local unions. 

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