Firefighters and AHT lead fight against flame retardants

BOSTON, Mass.—Families, firefighters and advocates came together at the State House on Tuesday to call on the House of Representatives to pass a bill to ban toxic flame retardants in children’s products and household furniture. The event was organized by the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow and the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts.

In May, the Massachusetts Senate voted unanimously to pass S.2302 An act to protect children and families from harmful flame retardants, filed by Senator Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), which bans eleven toxic flame retardants from children’s products and residential upholstered furniture sold or manufactured in the commonwealth. The bill is now pending in the House Ways and Means Committee, along with a very similar bill, H.4241, filed by Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge).

“Firefighters have extremely high rates of cancer. Since flame retardants are linked to cancer and their value is doubtful, it’s time to get them out of our homes and businesses which will reduce our exposure during a fire,” said Jay Colbert, Secretary-Treasurer of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts and 3rd District Vice President of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “This bill will help promote the health and safety of firefighters, our children and all citizens of Massachusetts.”

Flame retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, thyroid disease, infertility and a host of other health problems.  They migrate out of products and into air and dust where they can easily be inhaled or ingested. Children and infants are among the most vulnerable to flame retardant exposure because they are undergoing critical periods of growth and development, and because they spend so much time on the floor where dust settles. Firefighters are exposed to more than their fair share when they enter buildings where flame retardant furniture is burning.

Representative Decker commented, “It has become clear that flame retardants are not needed for fire safety but yet they are in our homes and our bodies. This bill will be a clear step forward for protecting our firefighters, who we count on to risk their lives on our behalf, and our children, who are most vulnerable. It is my strongest hope that we get this bill over the finish line and pass it this session.”

The bill echoes a growing national outcry over the use of flame retardants in consumer products. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune published a series of articles exposing the deceptive campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to keep in place policies requiring the heavy use of flame retardants. The Tribune reported that through a blatant misrepresentation of facts, industry advocates misled the American public into believing that flame retardants were a life-saving technology. In reality, the heavy doses of flame retardants added to couches, mattresses, kid’s pajamas and other items have done more harm than good.

“Flame retardants were used for decades in ways that were ineffective at stopping fires and resulted in all of our bodies being contaminated,” commented Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director of Clean Water Action and coordinator of the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. “Today’s fire safety standards are more protective of public safety and can be achieved with or without the use of toxic flame retardants. This bill is not a choice between public safety and public health; rather it is a choice to achieve public safety in the way that provides the highest protection to our most vulnerable.”

Due to public pressure some major retailers and manufacturers, such as Ashley Furniture, Macy’s and Crate and Barrel, have voluntarily phase out flame retardants from their products, but the transition has been slow, and it is often hard for shoppers to know which products are safe and which are not.

“As parents, we count on our homes to be safe spaces where our children are protected from the outside world, so it’s frustrating and scary that they are invaded by toxic chemicals, like flame retardants, even in products that are designed for children,” said Erica Streit-Kaplan of Newton. “As a mom I should not have to spend my limited time and resource researching whether my furniture is loaded with toxic flame retardants, it just should be made in the safest way possible, and Massachusetts legislators should require that.”

In 2013, California-based fire safety standards that impact furniture sold across the country were updated to reflect modern understandings of fire safety.  The new standards can be met with or without flame retardants.

“We now know that flame retardants cause harm to firefighters and families and they are not needed in children’s products or household furniture, yet they are still in many products sold in stores every day,” said Tolle Graham, Labor and Environment Coordinator at Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “Massachusetts legislators should act now to protect these heroic workers and all of our families who are experiencing unnecessary toxic exposures and suffering from illnesses as a result.”

In order to become law, S.2303 must also be passed by the House of Representatives, before it adjourns on July 31st. If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts will join 13 other states, including Maine, Vermont, Minnesota and Washington, in restricting the use of one or more flame retardants.