Calif. plan could cut toxic flame retardants in furniture across US

2013-02-09T00:00:00Z Calif. plan could cut toxic flame retardants in furniture across USMichael Hawthorne, Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan Chicago Tribune Arizona Daily Star

CHICAGO - In a move that could affect consumers nationwide, California officials on Friday unveiled plans to scrap an obscure 1975 rule that led to the buildup of toxic flame retardants in sofas, love-seats and upholstered chairs in millions of American homes.

The proposed changes, scheduled to be adopted officially later this year, mean the foam cushioning in furniture and baby products soon might be free of flame retardants, which are linked to cancer, developmental problems and impaired fertility. The new rule instead would require upholstery fabric to resist smoldering cigarettes - the biggest cause of furniture fires.

Furniture makers have said they can meet that standard without adding chemical flame retardants to foam or fabric.

California announced last year that it would overhaul its 38-year-old flammability rule after a Chicago Tribune investigation documented how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive, decades-long campaign to promote the use of flame retardants, even though government and independent research shows the chemicals don't 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-Berkeley chemist who has drawn attention to the hazards.

Under the current rule, known as Technical Bulletin 117, foam cushioning must withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds, a standard that many manufacturers meet by adding flame retardants to products sold across the country. Gov. Jerry Brown called for a sweeping overhaul last year after the chemical industry thwarted multiple attempts by California lawmakers and health advocates to change the rule with legislation.

When lawmakers in recent years considered eliminating the candle test, the chemical industry's star witness, burn surgeon David Heimbach, testified about babies burned to death in fires started by candles.

But the Chicago 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 - actually was a front group for the largest manufacturers of flame retardants. The industry has since shut down that group.

Before the proposed rule becomes final, industry officials and other interested parties will have a chance to weigh in and potentially challenge the new tests, making it unlikely that a standard will take effect before fall.

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