California Bans Flame Retardants

On October 1, 2018,  Governor Jerry Brown of California signed Assembly Bill 2998, a new law that bans most chemical flame retardants from being added to:

  • residential upholstered furniture
  • children’s products, and
  • mattresses.

The new law will take effect on January 1, 2020.  Electronics, including electronics used in children’s products, are not covered.

Why ban flame retardants?

For over a decade, environmental health advocates across the country–and in Massachusetts–have been working to ban toxic flame retardants. Chemical flame retardants do not slow the progress of fire in real world conditions.  They increase the danger of fires, because many chemicals commonly used as flame retardants become more toxic when burned, forming dioxins.  Boston firefighters have a cancer rate double that of the general public.  A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study found thafirefighters are 14% more likely to die of cancer than the general public.

That’s why firefighters have been some of the most vocal advocates pushing for the elimination of chemical flame retardants.

Toxins in our Homes

For the general public, flame retardants also pose a risk.  As polyurethane foam degrades over time, flame retardants migrate out of foam into air and dust.  As we sleep, sit on couches and just live in our homes, we inhale flame retardant chemicals. Children who crawl on the floor and engage in hand to mouth behavior, are at particular risk, absorbing more of the chemicals into their bodies. Scientific studies link flame retardants to an array of health problems including  lowered IQ, attention deficit disorder, fertility problems, thyroid disorders, and cancer.

Twelve states and Washington D.C. have banned two or more flame retardant chemicals.  In 2017, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has advised pregnant women and parents of young children to avoid buying or using products with “organohalogen” flame retardants.  The problem with CPSC’s advisory is that it is impossible to follow, because most products with flame retardants, except for upholstered furniture, are not labeled.  Companies of mattresses and children’s products have been under no obligation to reveal what chemicals are in their products.

California’s new law is important, because the state has banned virtually all flame retardants.  In the past, states have banned specific chemicals, only to find, a few years later, that manufacturers replaced the prohibited substances with other toxic chemicals.

What does California’s law mean for Massachusetts?

In the past, California regulations have had national impact, because manufacturers do not want to create one product for the California market and another one for the rest of the country.   Advocates hope that  the California law could motivate all manufacturers to eliminate chemical flame retardants from upholstered furniture, children’s products and children’s mattresses.

Until then, the only way to ensure that Massachusetts consumers are protected is to adopt legislation similar to the ban that just passed in California.