California, as it often does in health and environmental matters, led the charge among states in 1975 to make furniture safer by mandating the use of chemical flame retardants.
Thirty-eight years later it is leading the charge to reverse what turned out to be a dangerous and unhealthy decision, shaped by chemical companies and furniture manufacturers, that had a particularly pernicious effect on children.
Governor Jerry Brown announced last week that the state was dumping the old standard, which required manufacturers to protect furniture from flames by using chemicals that caused cancer, led to thyroid disease, introduced neurodevelopmental problems and impaired fertility. Around 90% of children’s furniture contains the chemicals, according to a study (pdf) by the Center for Environmental Health.
The old standard required that foam cushions in upholstered furniture be able to resist a candle flame for 12 seconds. Manufacturers met that standard by using chemicals. Now, the state will follow a standard (pdf) proposed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that advocates the use of specially designed, fire-resistant fabric instead. The new rules will be phased in next year.
“The previous standards focused predominantly on filling materials, where fires don’t actually start,” said Tonya Blood, chief of the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. “The new standards were developed to address where the fire begins, which is the cover fabric, and to focus on the interactions of the cover fabric and filling materials.” The bureau led the effort to develop the new standards.
Consumer groups had been agitating about the myriad maladies linked to the chemicals, and California seriously considered revising its flammability regulations. But the state Senate abandoned legislation after an appearance by Dr. David Heimbach, star lobbyist for Citizens for Fire Safety. The nonprofit group bills itself as a “coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders” but it is actually supported by the chemical industry.
Heimbach gave riveting testimony about a 7-week-old baby being burned in a fire started by a candle while she lay on a pillow—“a tiny little person, no bigger than my Italian greyhound at home . . . ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery.”
But a series of stories by the Chicago Tribune cast aspersions upon Heimbach’s testimony, proving the baby tale was just one fabricated story in “a decades-long campaign of deception,” and documented how the chemical industry had repeatedly misled the public using twisted data.