In a move that could affect consumers nationwide, California officials Friday unveiled plans to scrap an obscure 1975 rule that led to the widespread use of toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture and baby products in American homes.
The proposed changes would require upholstery fabric to resist a smoldering cigarette — the biggest cause of furniture fires. California currently requires the foam cushioning underneath to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds, a standard manufacturers meet by adding flame-retardant chemicals. The rule also has been applied to baby products such as diaper-changing pads, highchairs and nursery rockers.
If the changes are adopted later this year, scores of new household products might soon be free of flame retardants linked to cancer, developmental problems, lower IQ and impaired fertility. Studies show the chemicals migrate out of products into household dust ingested by people, especially young children who play on the floor and often put things in their mouths.
Furniture manufacturers say they would meet the new standards without adding flame retardants to foam or fabric. Most manufacturers could comply within a month of the rule taking effect, a top industry official said, though retailers would be allowed to sell inventories of products that could still contain flame retardants.
California announced last year that it would overhaul its 38-year-old flammability rule after a Tribune investigative series documented how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive, decadeslong campaign to promote the use of flame retardants, even though government and independent research shows the chemicals do not provide meaningful protection from furniture fires.
"Everybody will be healthier if we can have increased fire safety without toxic flame retardants," said Arlene Blum, a University of California at Berkeley chemist who has drawn attention to the hazards.
Tonya Blood, chief of the state agency in charge of enforcing the rule, called the current standard outdated and said the proposed changes reflect "real-world conditions." California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Blood last year to oversee a sweeping overhaul after the chemical industry helped thwart multiple attempts by California lawmakers and health advocates to change the flammability rule through legislation.
When lawmakers considered eliminating the candle test, the chemical industry's star witness, burn surgeon David Heimbach, testified about babies who burned to death in fires started by candles. But the Tribune series proved that the babies he described didn't exist.
The newspaper also documented that the group sponsoring Heimbach — the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute — was a front group for the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants. The industry has since shut down that group.
California state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat who fought unsuccessfully to overhaul the California rule, said the candle test "benefits absolutely no one except the deep pockets of three ... wealthy, powerful chemical corporations."
Before the proposed changes are adopted, industry officials and other interested parties will have a chance to weigh in and potentially challenge the new tests. The soonest the new standard could take effect is this fall, Blood said, and manufacturers would not be required to comply until July 2014.
The proposal is modeled after a voluntary standard adopted by the furniture industry and a national smolder standard proposed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Studies by the safety commission and Underwriters Laboratories have found the use of specially designed furniture fabric is the most effective way to prevent furniture fires.
Flame retardants aren't explicitly banned under the proposed rule. But California officials and furniture industry representatives said that if upholstery fabric resists fires there is no need to continue adding flame retardants to the foam underneath.
"This standard has been proven effective and doesn't require the use of flame retardant chemistry," said Andy Counts, president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade group for furniture manufacturers. "It also doesn't have a great impact on the manufacturing process."
The American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the chemical industry, said the current standard saves lives. Any questions about the safety of flame retardants, the group said, should be addressed by a separate California agency that studies toxic chemicals.
"Regrettably, if this proposed regulation moves forward, it will reverse a fire safety standard that has provided an important layer of protection to Californians for over 35 years," the industry group said.
But as the Tribune series documented, the chemical industry has repeatedly misled the public with flawed data and questionable claims about the effectiveness of flame retardants.
The lead author of one government study cited by the industry told the newspaper his findings have been grossly distorted and that the amount of flame retardants used in household furniture doesn't work. Another industry-touted finding was based on a test of self-extinguishing theatrical fabric rather than furniture upholstery.
Meanwhile, testing by Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton suggests that the most commonly used flame retardant in upholstered furniture and baby products is chlorinated tris — a chemical the industry voluntarily removed from children's pajamas in the late 1970s after scientists found that it could mutate DNA.
Researchers also have tracked how the chemical industry has shifted over time from one troublesome flame retardant to another and has introduced new, chemically similar compounds with little or no study about potential health effects.
Leno, the California lawmaker, called the Tribune investigation a "game changer" that revived efforts to eliminate flame retardants from household products.
"It really reset the landscape," he said. "It changed everything for us."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times