Finally, a way to get toxics out of furniture

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Mark Leno's six-year battle finally gets some results

Gov. Jerry Brown has finally done what the state Legislature refused for six years to do: He's eliminating the requirement that household furniture and children's cribs, car seats, and strollers be treated with toxic flame-retardant chemicals.

State Sen. Mark Leno has been working on this since 2006, and has introduced four different bills that were aimed at the chemicals that are known to cause serious health problems and are prevalent in coaches, chairs and other furniture. At one point, he simply sought to protect kids; he later gave up on banning the chemicals and sought simply to allow manufacturers to use other, less toxic forms of fire retardants. But the chemical industry launched a high-powered lobbying effort to protect the mandates, and all of his bills were defeated.

The standards that California uses were written 40 years ago, when state officials were worried about the danger of furniture fires, primarily started by smokers leaving lit cigarettes on a coach or chair. They've become a de facto national standard, since nobody wants to build furniture that can't be sold in the nation's biggest market.

But there's now abundant evidence that the chlorinated and brominated chemicals used to treat polyurethane foam, which is prevalent in upholstery, are linked to cancer, reproductive problems and learning disabilities.

Alternatives to those chemicals are available -- and, along with the emergence of self-extinguishing cigarettes and the widespread use of smoke detectors, the old rules have become obsolete.

Now Brown's Department of Consumer Affairs has rewritten the regulations, allowing for a more effective standard that can be met without dangerous chemicals. The new regs are complicated (try reading this and making sense of it) but what they say, in essence, is that products designed for children no longer have to meet the old standards -- and adult furnishing can meet a more modern standard that doesn't require the use of chlorides and bromides.

"This is a landmark day," Leno told us. "This will not only change the way California deals with fire safety; it will impact the rest of the country."

Leno said that as soon as the new rules take effect, he will try to get the Legislature to adopt them as law, so a future governor can't go backward.

The chemical industry tried to derail the governor's effort, too -- and enlisted the help of Leno's colleague, state Sen. Leland Yee.

A Jan. 9th letter signed by 20 state Legislators urges Brown not to change the existing standards. Reading like a handout from the chemical industry, it refers to the "alleged chemical risks" and suggests that the governor instead have those chemicals further studied -- a process that could delay any changes for some time.

That's crazy: "Endless scientific studies (including a recently released report that makes a connection between exposure to flame retardants and reduced IQ and higher rates of autism) and every environmental advocacy group that these chemicals are known to be toxic and harmful to human health and development," Leno said.

Yee is among the mostly conservative, pro-industry signatories.

We contacted Yee for comment more than a week ago, but he hasn't called. His chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, told us the letter "it is consistent with his position that all chemicals should go through Green Chemistry Council to leave the conflicting science to the experts rather than politicians. In addition, it is consistent with the position of the all the major burn centers and doctors, including those in San Francisco, who believe this fire retardant is necessary to save lives."

Actually, the science isn't "conflicting" at all; it's entirely consistent. And the state regulators have concluded that alternatives to toxic substances can provide even greater fire safety.

In fact, Andrew McGuire, one of the pre-eminent burn specialists in the country, told us Yee's statement was off the mark. "I know that's not what the doctors at San Francisco General think, and that's where my office is," he said. "The top burn doctors belong to the American Burn Association, and that group's position is not in support of toxic flame retardants."