In 2005, veteran Los Angeles County firefighter Crystal Golden-Jefferson died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first her death was a mystery: The 41-year-old Inglewood mother had always prided herself on her fitness.
But now Jefferson’s parents believe long-term exposure to brominated chemicals used as flame retardants in household furniture foam caused their daughter’s death.
Studies show that when burned, such compounds convert to brominated dioxin. Firefighters inhale the fumes and are exposed through soot contact with the skin.
Dioxins have been associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Chemicals killed her,” said James Golden, the firefighter’s father. “These fire retardants in sofas and chairs: When they start to burn, bad things happen.”
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill last year to prohibit the use of brominated and chlorinated chemicals as furniture flame retardants. It passed in the Assembly but languished in the Senate.
Renamed last summer in honor of Golden-Jefferson, the legislation seeks to modify state furniture standards because the toxic compounds endanger not only firefighters but also consumers, Leno said.
The bill is scheduled for a Senate vote this year.
Critics of the legislation say that firefighters are subjected to all types of chemical fumes and that there is no solid evidence that brominated fire-retardant chemicals are worse than other agents.
“There are thousands of chemicals that burn in a fire, from plastics to what have you. How can you differentiate that the flame-retardant products are doing the damage?” asked Seth Jacobson, a spokesman for Californians for Fire Safety, which he acknowledged was partly funded by the chemical industry.
The existence of cancer-causing chemicals in household furniture has been debated for years, with both environmentalists and industries that use the chemicals pointing to studies that back their claims.
Studies of animals that ingested the chemicals show that long-term exposure can cause cancer, reproductive difficulties and neurological problems, Leno said. There are no comparable human studies. But some research suggests that residue from the chemicals, used in the manufacture of polyurethane seat cushions, is released over time and settles into household dust, he said. The dust is then inhaled.
“We’re poisoning our nation one sofa at a time,” Leno said.
Last week, a San Francisco environmental group called Friends of the Earth released a report on the subject called “Killer Couches.” It suggests that the majority of California’s furniture contains toxic chemical fire retardants that are particularly dangerous to infants and children.
Analyzing 350 couches and chairs, the study concluded that two-thirds of the furniture tested in stores and half the furniture tested in homes contained high levels of brominated fire retardants, said the group’s president, Russell Long.
California has the nation’s strictest fire-retardant standards for furnishings. In 1978, facing increased hazards from cigarette-caused fires, the state adopted Technical Bulletin 117, which set tough standards for flame-retardant furniture. The law required all polyurethane foam padding used in household furniture to withstand 12 seconds of open flame without catching fire.
California was also among 11 states in 2003 to ban two pervasive brominated flame retardants used in many household products. The next year, the chemical industry stopped producing the agents. But other brominated flame retardants remain in widespread use, Long said.
Manufacturers say their less-flammable furniture has saved lives.
“These are well-intentioned laws, but we know more now than we did in the 1970s,” said Leno.
His bill, AB 706, is opposed by Dr. David Greenhalgh, chief of the burn units at UC Davis Medical Center and Shriners Hospitals for Children-Northern California.
“We need to preserve these flame-retardant laws. Without them, people end up with bad burns. That’s what I do for a living -- take care of these people,” he said. “These people worry about getting cancer from sitting on a couch. But people do die when these couches catch fire. They die from horrible, disfiguring burns.”
Environmentalists say alternatives to brominated retardants include less-toxic phosphate and bio-based foams. They say Leno’s legislation has the support of major firefighting groups, including the California Professional Firefighters and California State Firefighters’ Assn.
The bill is also backed by several key burn-care groups, including the Firefighters Burn Institute.
Not everyone is convinced.
“Phosphates aren’t the end-all. They’re like putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Robert Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Assn. “There really aren’t many alternatives. I wish there were.”
Scott Poster, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said the agency has not yet taken a stand on AB 706.
“Burn almost anything, there’s a myriad of toxic chemicals released,” he said. “It’s very nice they named the bill after one of our firefighters, but we’re still making an assessment of the issue.”
Dolores Golden says she is sure of what killed her daughter, a firefighter for 19 years.
“She was so strong -- to die so young,” she said. “The state should ban these chemicals.”