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Chemical safeguards

A revised safety bill that puts a priority on testing fire retardants should be signed by the governor.

August 16, 2008

Last year, Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) sponsored a bill banning two types of toxic chemicals used as fire retardants in foam padding in furniture. These chlorinated and brominated chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders; they migrate from furniture to dust particles, are breathed in by children and pets, and are found in the breast milk of nursing mothers. That bill, however, never reached Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk, falling victim to election-year squabbling.

Now Leno is trying again. This year's bill, AB 706, doesn't ban brominated and chlorinated fire retardants outright, which this page supported. Instead of wielding a legislative sledgehammer, Leno has chosen a microscope -- proposing a process of chemical scrutiny rather than prohibition. The revised bill would make the state responsible for analyzing the toxicity of all chemicals used in products sold in California and ranking them in terms of greatest concern. And the chemicals of most concern to Leno still come in for special treatment. The bill directs the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to start its analysis with chlorinated and brominated fire retardants -- and gives the department discretion to prohibit the use of specific chemicals.

The bill also updates the 30-year-old regulation that created the need for fire retardants in foam. California has the most stringent fire safety standards in the world, among them a requirement that foam padding in furniture be able to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. But fires do not spontaneously ignite inside sofas; they start with the fabric. And 90% of the time, that's because a smoker forgot to put out a cigarette. AB 706 changes California's "flame-to-foam" standard to a cigarette-resistance standard similar to one recently enacted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The federal law will take effect in 2010, but California doesn't have to wait to change its law before it becomes obsolete.

Fire-related deaths in this country have decreased over the years, but that mostly has to do with the reduction in smoking, fire-retardant cigarettes and better alarm and sprinkler systems. California is the only state with a flame-to-foam standard, and although our fire mortality rates are low, other states, with no such standards, have even lower rates. Leno's bill made sense before, and the revisions have made it better. We hope it lands on the governor's desk and leaves it with his signature.

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