Chemical firms try to reverse setbacks over California's fire retardant rules

Makers of flame retardant still hope to get back into the California market

A dispute is smoldering in the Capitol over flameproof furniture.

On one side are the makers of chemicals that are used to prevent home furnishings from catching fire. On the other are consumers who want fewer toxic compounds around the house.

Chemical companies seek to reverse setbacks of the last two years at the hands of regulators and lawmakers.

First, it was foam padding in cushions. In 2012, the governor tossed out a 39-year-old requirement that padding not catch fire easily when exposed to an open flame.

The state switched to a test that measures the likelihood of furniture catching fire from smoldering cigarettes, electric appliances, space heaters and extension cords.

The new standard made it less likely that furniture makers would use chemical fire retardants, resulting in reduced chemical sales.

In August, lawmakers added to the chemical corporations' woes. They mandated labels on furniture that alert buyers of the presence of flame retardants.

Consumers need the information, proponents argued, to protect themselves and their families from retardants, which can contain harmful toxins. They lodge in human tissue after being ingested through dust. Some are linked to cancer and reproductive health problems, scientific studies show.

The battle highlights how small changes in regulations prompt major fights in Sacramento.

But makers of flame retardant still hope to get back into the California market.

They've begun a public relations campaign with fire-safety Internet sites, raising alarms about the dangers of home fires in hopes of pressuring furniture companies to ease customer worries by using more retardants.

California has moved to protect the environment — and ignored fire dangers, said Robert Campbell, the corporate director for regulatory affairs at Chemtura Corp., a Philadelphia company that makes flame retardants. "We can't afford to step back on fire safety," he said.

Environmental activists scoffed at the assertion. "There's no evidence the old standard saved lives," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley. The institute led the fight to end the use of flame retardants in furniture.

The goal of the chemical industry, she said, "is to sell their chemicals."

Insurance blitz

California's unsung insurance cops are sweeping the streets of suspected fraudsters. In the last two weeks, they served arrest warrants in 22 counties, charging 195 people with more than 200 felony counts of auto insurance fraud.

In most of the cases, uninsured or underinsured drivers bought coverage for their vehicles after they were in accidents. Then they filed claims for damages. Losses to insurers exceeded $1 million, according to the Department of Insurance.

"The lesson here," said state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, "is don't drive without insurance."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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