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Ban Welcome, But Scientists Warn of Flame-Retardant's Toxic Legacy

California rule ushers in 'new era' for home furnishings nationwide

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Photo: Old Sarge/ cc via Flickr)A newly revised California law banning the use of toxic and cancer-causing flame retardants in furniture, effective January 1, is likely to usher in a "new era" for households nationwide.

However, scientists are cautious that discarded sofas, armchairs and Lazy-boys will leave a toxic legacy for years to come.

California's new Technical Bulletin 117 removes a decades-old requirement that flame retardants be included in the filling of upholstered furniture which became the de-facto standard despite widespread documentation that the chemicals employed are linked to cancer, reproductive problems and lower IQs in children—without actually slowing fires.

Calling this move a "new era of less pervasive flame retardants in our home furnishings," Scientific American writes:

The new requirements state that upholstered furniture sold in the state must not continue to “smolder” some 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it—protecting against a cigarette carelessly dropped on a couch rather than a lit candle. Manufacturers can meet the requirement without the use of fire retardants, by using fabrics that better withstand such exposures or by lining furniture with a fire barrier such as polyester batting. Furniture manufacturers nation-wide have ensured that their wares met the stringent California flammability standards for the past few decades, so the new requirements are expected to have ripple effects across the industry that will trigger a reduction in the use of flame retardant in our home furnishings.

"This is huge for the health of everybody in this country and for our environment," said University of California, Berkeley chemist Arlene Blum, who had long-advocated for the rule change.

But, she adds, "What happens to the tens of millions of toxic sofas and chairs and baby products in this country?"

As the Huffington Post's Lynne Peeples reports, no safe method currently exists for disposing of furniture contaminated with flame retardants.

"Whether the jettisoned furniture ends up in a landfill, a low-income home, a college dorm room or recycled into another product," she writes, "the junk may further harm public health."

Experts fear that the chemicals from furniture discarded at landfills will leach into the environment with long-term consequences. As Scientific American reports, "the substances do not quickly break down into safer chemicals and they tend to accumulate in food chains and living tissue."

Further, there is concern that passed-down furniture will pose an environmental justice challenge as low income people are more likely to inherit the toxic goods.

"Right now, there are no easy solutions to this problem," Ami Zota, an environmental health professor at George Washington University, told Huffington Post.

“I think this is a big advance,” agrees Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. However, she cautions, “Whenever you have persistent chemicals that have been used in the past once they are introduced into the environment they will be with us for a long time.”

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