Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has sent a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asking him to use his executive power to ban a controversial set of flame retardant chemicals from furniture sold in California.
The letter, sent late on Monday, is a response to a study released last week by the Silent Spring Institute. The Massachusetts-based group that found that Californians had twice the level of a fire retardant known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in their blood as people in other states. Animal studies have found that PBDEs to cause cancer, reproductive and neurological problems. An industry representative said that there is no evidence the chemicals cause health problems in humans.
"We have a chemical and regulatory disaster on our hands and further studies underway now will only further document the grave error our state has made," Leno stated in his letter to the governor.
Specifically, he is requesting that Schwarzenegger suspend a 1970s era rule called Technical Bulletin 117. This is a regulation that calls for foam in furniture sold in California be able to withstand at least 12 seconds exposure to the flame of a Bunsen burner without catching fire. Environmental groups have long argued that no other state has such a standard, and that the rule has done little or nothing to reduce fire deaths in California.
Leno tried to get a similar change by legislation in the session that ended last month. AB 706 would have banned a wide range of chlorinated and brominated fire retardants. While these fire retardants are not required by TB 117, in most cases using them is by far the cheapest way to comply with the rule. The bill died in the Senate in August.
Had it gotten to the Governor's desk, AB 706 likely would have joined the record 35 percent of bills Schwarzenegger vetoed this year. In June of last year, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) sent an opposition letter to Leno asking him to drop the bill. This letter cited the Governor's Green Chemistry Initiative as a reason for not pursuing chemical-by-chemical bans. While the letter did not come directly from the governor's office, it is widely acknowledged that a state agency would not send out such a letter without the administration's approval. Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, also got opposition letters on chemical bills from the DTSC.
In his letter, Leno cited the "new authority" the Governor has gained via the Green Chemistry Initiative. Under AB 1879, a bill backed by industry and supported and signed by the Governor, he now has greater ability to prohibit particular chemicals by executive order. The bill was carried by Assemblyman Mike Fueur, D-Los Angeles.
Leno also asks the governor to enforce his existing ability to ban a certain class of PDDEs, known as penta. Penta was officially banned in 2003 when then-Governor Gray Davis signed by AB 302 by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan; the enforcement aspect of the bill has never been funded. Leno also asks the Governor to oppose an expansion of the current fire retardant standards to pillows and bedding.
John Kyte, North American director of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum in Louisiana, downplayed the significance of the Silent Spring Study. He noted that the two main types of PBDEs searched for in the studies, known as penta and octa, have been phased out by the industry since 2004, the same year as the latest measurements cited in the study. He called the study "irrelevant" and said "there is no real news in there." Kyte also disputed the idea that the chemicals measured in Californians were high enough to cause health concerns.
"The levels that are reported are very low," Kyte said. "They are not levels that anyone would suggest causes harm to humans or the environment."
Dr. Asa Bradman, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health, strongly disputed Kyte's assertions. Bradman, who studies chemical exposures but did not work on the Silent Spring study, noted that most furniture sold in the 2003-2004 time frame is still in use and will be for many years.
He also took issue with Kyte's claim that finding these chemicals in human blood at a few "parts per billion" was not a cause for concern. He noted that PBDEs can mimic human hormones, including many of those regulating gender characteristics.
"A lot of these hormones function in the body at extremely low levels," Bradman said.
The study was published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. It was conducted by the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute in collaboration with the University of California Berkeley, Brown University, and the group Communities for a Better Environment.
Among other measurements, researchers collected dust samples in 49 homes in the California towns of Richmond and Bolinas. These were compared with similar collections done in 120 homes in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as well as with published studies from Canada, Europe and several US cities.