— TheU.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced it will conduct a broad investigation of flame retardants that a Tribune series identified as examples of the government's failure to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.
Meanwhile, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission urged lawmakers to grant special authority that could speed the removal of hazardous flame retardants from new upholstered furniture, including sofas that can contain up to 2 pounds of the chemicals in their foam cushions.
The initiatives, outlined at a Senate subcommittee hearing, opened new fronts in a debate about chemicals that for years have been added to a wide variety of household goods and baby products, even as a growing amount of research has identified health concerns and raised doubts about whether flame retardants prevent fires.
The Tribune's "Playing With Fire" investigation, which prompted the hearing, exposed a deceptive, decades-long campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote flame retardants. Tapping into the public's fear of fire, industry created a phony consumer group that distorted science and helped organize an association of top fire officials to advocate greater use of flame retardants in furniture and electronics.
Promoted as lifesavers, flame retardants added to furniture cushions actually provide no meaningful protection from fires, according to federal researchers and independent scientists. Some of the most widely used chemicals are linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
James Jones, the EPA's top chemical safety official, told senators that flame retardants illustrate several weaknesses in the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that gives the government little power to assess or limit dangers from flame retardants and scores of other chemicals. The law allows chemical companies to put their products on the market without proving they are safe and makes it almost impossible to ban chemicals after health effects are documented.
The Obama administration has called repeatedly for an overhaul of the law, but legislation sponsored by Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dick Durbin of Illinois has been mired in anti-regulatory politics.
Jones said the EPA will use its limited authority under the existing law to target several flame retardants, including one chemical mixture that the agency promoted as safe nearly a decade ago and is now widely sold under the brand name Firemaster 550.
The EPA also will adopt a new strategy by the end of the year focusing on a larger group of flame retardants that pose "the greatest potential concerns," Jones said in prepared remarks to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, an influential spending panel chaired by Durbin.
"The American public has the right to expect that the chemicals manufactured, imported and used in this country are safe," Jones said. "The time to fix this badly outdated law is now."
Inez Tenenbaum, the safety commission's chairman, asked senators to back an amendment to the Flammable Fabrics Act that would streamline the watchdog agency's authority to adopt new rules for upholstered furniture. In 2008, Congress granted the panel similar leeway to outlaw lead and other toxic substances in baby cribs and toys — hazards revealed by another Tribune investigation.
Federal regulators have been wrestling for years with the issue of how to fireproof furniture. The safety commission now thinks the best solution is to require upholstery to resist smoldering cigarettes, which federal statistics show are by far the chief cause of furniture fires.
Andy Counts, chief executive of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, said voluntary standards adopted by the furniture industry ensure that most sofas and easy chairs sold today are covered with fabrics that comply with the commission's proposed standard without using flame retardants.
One problem, Tenenbaum said, is that federal law requires a lengthy process to adopt new consumer protection rules, making it difficult to respond quickly to emerging science about flame retardants. The commission also has taken years to come up with testing protocols for furniture, which is sold in many shapes and sizes.
Another factor is a flammability standard that California adopted in 1975 and that most furniture manufacturers follow for goods sold nationwide. In response to the Tribune investigation, Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month that his state will revamp that standard, known as Technical Bulletin 117, a move that could make the federal safety commission's proposal unnecessary.
"If California addresses the issue, it could finally resolve this problem," Tenenbaum said in an interview after the hearing. "Don't wait for us, because our process is so onerous."
Last week 26 senators, including Durbin, Lautenberg and, for the first time, three Republicans, called for a congressional overhaul of the chemical safety law. But the group stopped short of bipartisan support for Lautenberg's proposed Safe Chemicals Act, which would give the EPA more authority to regulate chemicals and require manufacturers to prove their products are safe before putting them on the market.
"If this isn't a call to arms … I don't know what is," Durbin said, citing the Tribune investigation.
The American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the chemical industry, says it supports the idea of a new law but opposes Lautenberg's bill. The group has rejected calls from Democratic senators to suggest changes.
Jones, of the EPA, said that if the proposed overhaul had been in place, the agency likely would not have allowed certain flame retardants to be sold. He singled out Firemaster 550, a flame retardant highlighted by the Tribune as a chemical that took independent scientists years to identify and raise concerns about.
The EPA in 2003 hailed the flame retardant as safe even though records show that scientists within the agency were deeply skeptical. After peer-reviewed studies showed that the chemical has spread across the globe and routinely turns up in household dust ingested by children, the agency now plans to conduct a "high priority" review of potential hazards next year.
On Tuesday the agency said that initiative also would include other brominated flame retardants, a group of chemicals that some independent scientists have said should face tougher scrutiny because they tend to spread easily and widely, persist in the environment and build up in the food chain.
"Since brominated flame retardants are substitutes for each other, we are going to look at all of them," Jones said after the hearing, citing Firemaster 550 as an example of the EPA "missing an issue" with a chemical. "We don't want to shift the risk around among chemicals that might pose similar problems."
Chemtura, the Philadelphia-based company that makes Firemaster 550, says the flame retardant is safe and continues to cite the EPA's 2003 endorsement as proof. Last month the company said it would work with the EPA to "realize the ultimate benefits of Firemaster 550."
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