New California Law Chooses Fire Over Chemicals

Published October 24, 2014


Flame-retardant chemicals put into furniture since the mid-’70s to prevent fires have received such a black eye in California the state legislature passed a new law requiring furniture sold in the Golden State to carry warning labels indicating whether it contains such chemicals.

Gov, Jerry Brown (D) signed the bill on September 30.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen Mark Leno (D), claims it gives consumers something they’ve wanted for decades: The right to know what is in their furniture. However, companies that make FRCs complain the bill fails to inform consumers furniture sold in the state may no longer be protected from open-flame sources, such as candles, lighters, and matches.

Last year Brown amended the state’s fire standards, originally adopted in the 1970s.

New Standards’ Safety Questioned

The standards previously mandated foam used in furniture be able to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small, open flame. Manufacturers throughout the nation have added brominated or chlorinated chemicals to the foam to slow the spread of flames.

Brown’s amendments, however, mean manufacturers are no longer allowed to rely on an open-flame test for foam used in furniture. Instead, the new standards require testing of upholstery fabrics, barriers and fillings to resist ignition from smoldering cigarettes. This means furniture sold in California often no longer needs to contain fire retardants to meet the standard, say critics.

Steven Hayward, author of the Pacific Research Institute’s annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, says this new development is unsurprising because California has a long history of overly broad regulation, going back to Prop. 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

“The claims that FRCs cause health and reproductive problems are thin and mostly benefit trial lawyers,” says Hayward. “The irony here is that safety advocates like Ralph Nader and others pushed for safety measures like adding flame retardants to furniture so that we would all be safer. With the passage of this new law, Californians are a lot less safe,” he says.

Dr. Gilbert Ross, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, says the accusation FRCs are somehow harmful to human health is simply false.

“FRCs slow down deadly fires and have never been shown to be harmful to humans in the exposures we get from household products, although studies have shown increasing levels of these chemicals in our bodies. And there is no evidence whatsoever that firefighters who are coming down with rare cancers are getting them from FRCs, or even that they are suffering from higher rates of any disease, compared to the general population,” says Ross.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.