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Californians Sitting on Toxic Couches - Report

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO - Most of California's furniture contains toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and neurological and reproductive dysfunction, according to a report released today.

The so-called halogenated fire retardants are particularly harmful to infants and children, said Friends of the Earth, the nonprofit citizens group that tested 350 items of furniture in stores and people's houses."We found that two thirds of furniture sold in retail stores and 50 percent of furniture in people's homes contain high amounts of halogenated fire retardants," said Russell Long, the group's vice president. "So for the typical consumer that may have five to ten pieces of furniture in their home, their home is full of these chemicals."

The report, titled "Killer Couches: Protecting Infants and Children from Toxic Exposure," also includes information on other studies, which have shown that most Americans who undergo testing have halogenated fire retardants stored in their bodies, with babies and children showing the highest levels.

Researchers say that infants and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of halogenated fire retardant chemicals, which travel through the placenta and breast milk. Levels of these chemicals in breast milk have increased 40-fold since the 1970s.

When halogenated fire retardants burn, they turn into dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man. Dioxin accumulates in the human body and can be passed down from generation to generation and is present in mother's breast milk.

Halogenated fire retardants also emit a dark smoke that can reduce visibility for firefighters and expose rescue workers to extremely toxic and cancer causing chemicals.

California State Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco has introduced a bill to ban the chemical in California. The bill is named in honor of Leno's daughter, Crystal Golden-Jefferson, a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department who died from workplace-related non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Leno notes that the state barred the chemicals' use in children's pajamas a generation ago.

"These fire retardants were removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s because they were found to change children's DNA and likely be carcinogenic," Leno said. "Now we have these same chemicals in many of our most intimate household products."

Leno's bill passed the State Assembly, but fell one vote short in the California Senate. The bill is backed by state fire fighters unions, environmental groups, and furniture manufacturers.

It is opposed by chambers of commerce, multiple departments in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, and the chemicals' manufacturer, which is represented by the Washington, DC- and Brussels-based Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF).

Documents on file with the California Secretary of State show that, faced with the potential banning of its product, BSEF spent nearly $7 million lobbying the California legislature last year in a successful bid to kill Leno's measure.

"We felt we did rather well," said Leno, "considering many millions of dollars were spent by the bromine chemical industry dressing themselves up as 'Californians for Fire Safety' with a multimedia campaign that included full page, full color ads in many newspapers, multiple mailings to constituents across the state of California, and television and radio advertisements; and despite that barrage of misinformation we came just two voters short of sending it to the governor."

In letters to key legislative committees, BSEF argued that Leno's bill "jeopardizes public health and safety by forcing manufacturers to switch to unspecified alternatives that do not have the same established history of use and which must comply with an as yet undefined flame resistance standard to be established by the Bureau."

They also argued that it will "likely result in reduced levels of fire safety for the citizens of California," a difficult assertion to sustain considering the bill's support from multiple fire fighters unions.

Groundwater, drinking water, ambient air, oceans, and ecosystems have also been contaminated by halogenated fire retardants, which are now being detected in wildlife throughout the world -- in areas as remote as the Arctic Circle.

Some of the highest levels have been found in harbor seals and aquatic life in the San Francisco Bay.

These compounds have also been found in dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish.

© 2008 One World

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