California Updating Flame Retardant Rules for Furniture

More than five years ago, chemist Arlene Blum was writing about Killer Couch Chemicals, telling about her cat's struggle with hyperthyroidism, and trying to sound a warning about toxins in our furniture.  Blum had her cat's blood tested and confirmed for high levels of flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs, also found at high levels in her house dust.
The second of our two cats died this week, the second who struggled with a sort of wasting away that happened, confirmed by blood testing on the second one that his thyroid was out of balance.  We used medication and veterinary care for as long as we could, until we had to tell our two young daughters that "Grey Grey's body wouldn't work anymore," and we held a memorial service.  Not being a scientist and not having the means or the presence of mind to have Grey Grey's blood tested for toxins, I'll never know for sure what caused his condition.  It seems such a bizarre and unlikely idea that he could have been killed by our couch, the one with the neat tag declaring it meets a special California flammability standard!  If I hadn't read Blum's story I'd scarcely consider it.

Our little family heartbreak happened to come just as  news has been announced that the research by Blum and other environmental scientists has helped California get closer to cleaning up its flame retardant law.  It sounded like a good idea at the time the law was enacted, to require furniture to meet a certain flammability standard focusing on the foam cushions.  Industry responded by dousing products like those cushions, apparently not just in California but across the country, with toxic chemicals in the name of fire safety.  Environmental scientists and investigative journalists have blown the lid off what you might even call a scandal surrounding this.

A newly proposed flammability rule TB 117-2013 for California holds promise of setting a safer standard, still addressing fire safety, that doesn't lead industry to use all of those chemicals in our couches.  Respected scientist and physician Sarah Janssen goes so far to get our attention as to call the use of a chemical under the existing measure "stupid" and she lays out good reasons in her well-informed blog post at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Because she has access to top laboratory services, Dr. Janssen tells the story of finding an entire pound of another flame retardant called chlorinated Tris in her couch.  That's the same stuff that Blum's research helped us get out of children's pajamas in the 1970s.  If the idea of revolving toxic chemicals in our consumer products sounds absurd to you, you're not alone. 

While we'll miss our sweet family cat, it's the children I'm really concerned about.  Who knows how much of the toxic dust, proven by scientists to not stay in our couches but to spread throughout our homes, their little bodies can handle? When I spoke by phone today with Dr. Janssen, she cautioned,  "These flame retardants are impacting everybody’s health.  Pregnant women are exposing their children to these chemicals in the womb.  It’s part of the reason babies are born pre-polluted."

If you live in California, this is your time to weigh in on the updated flammability measure that's in its review period.  And wherever you live, you can help address the broader consumer effort called the Safe Chemicals Act that seeks to update a broken federal law so that chemicals are proven safe before they come into our homes.  You may say that you're not an activist; I never considered myself one either.  Trouble is, we're already unwilling participants in these experiments with household toxins like flame retardants and much more.  Isn't it time we all did something about it?

Related posts:
Toxins in Consumer Products
What's Lurking in Your Furniture?
Why Parents Need to Know about the Safe Chemicals Act
Top Scientist Talks Chemical Safety

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