Money to Burn 

Although flame retardants may pose health risks, the chemical industry has spent millions blocking attempts to ban them in California.

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Leno declined to comment on the donations received by his colleagues, but said on a bill like SB147 he takes the time to present his case to each member with a committee vote. "And almost without exception, as I'm leaving my colleague's office, there's a lobbyist for the chemical industry in the waiting room to go in to get the last word. And, of course, there's a dozen of them and one of me."

Saving Lives?

Do flame retardants save lives? There is no clear answer. Flame retardants have been used widely since California adopted its flammability standard in 1975. Known as Technical Bulletin 117, the standard requires polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture and children's products to resist a small open flame for twelve seconds. To meet the standard, furniture manufacturers commonly add flame retardants to the foam, which is notorious for its combustibility.

Yet according to a study presented at the International Association for Fire Safety in June, the standard doesn't prevent ignition from small flames or reduce the severity of a fire. That's because the small flame standard doesn't reflect what happens when furniture catches fire, said Vytenis Babrauskas, former head of the National Institute of Standards and Toxicology's combustion toxicology program and lead author of the study, which was federally funded.

The test exposes foam to a small, Bunsen-burner-like flame, Babrauskas explained, but it should have used foam covered with fabric, since that's what people have in their homes. "In real life you don't see this naked foam," he said. "What you see is fabric, and what's going to ignite first is the fabric."

Naked foam treated with flame retardants to meet TB117 can resist a small open flame. But when fabric starts to burn, the foam will be exposed to a much larger flame than used in the TB117 test, and there's no evidence that treated foam can resist that larger flame.

Also, in a 2001 draft proposal for the first national furniture flammability standard, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that TB117-compliant chairs performed no better against cigarettes or small open flames than chairs that met voluntary guidelines issued by the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. To meet those voluntary guidelines, manufacturers use fabrics with inherent flame resistance and build furniture following criteria that pass the council's flammability tests — none of which require flame retardants.

Death rates from residential fires involving upholstered furniture fell in California during the 1980s. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission attributed the decline to demographic factors — particularly a rapid drop in smoking prevalence — rather than the state's flammability standard.

Bryan Goodman of the American Chemistry Council disagreed that demographics explain the decline. He cited a March, 2003 study funded by the New Zealand Fire Service Commission, which noted: "In California, where mandatory standards for home furnishings have been in place since 1975, the incidence of fire death, injury and property loss have fallen faster than in the USA as a whole. Between 1978 and 1995, there was a significant decline in the number of deaths in the USA where upholstered furniture was the first item ignited."

The study cited a report by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings, which credited TB117, its own standard, as the main factor in reducing the rate of fires involving home furnishings. But Babrauskas argued that this interpretation ignores the fact that most people keep the same couch for many years. "It's not credible that there would have been any significant effect between 1975 and 1980, since the life of a sofa is fifteen to thirty years and we see no drop in rate at the five-year mark of implementation," he said. "If TB117 was responsible for the decline, you would have continued to see a big drop from year five to fifteen, but there is none."

No one factor can explain the state's reduction in fire deaths, said Tonya Hoover, California's acting state fire marshal. She attributed the decline to a combination of factors, including fire-safe building construction, smoke alarms, material flammability standards, and reduced smoking.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission's proposed federal regulation has not moved beyond a draft form. As a result, because manufacturers make most of their products to comply with TB117, California's flammability rule serves as a de facto national standard.

Selling Safety

Among the witnesses that chemical industry lobbyists engaged to testify in the state legislature against the flame retardant bills were burn victims. Leno recalled a committee hearing where lobbyists presented fire-scarred women on crutches, who related the trauma of being caught in a fire. At another committee hearing, on Leno's SB772, two African-American boys, ages 10 and 13, pleaded with legislators to keep them safe from fire by defeating his bill. "It's all about fear and nothing about facts," Leno said.

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