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Fire retardants and baby products: This isn't kid stuff

A battle is waging in the Legislature over the use of the highly toxic chemicals.

July 13, 2009|Russell Long | Russell Long is vice president of Friends of the Earth.

For decades, California has been the only state in the nation to require the use of highly toxic fire-retardant chemicals on cribs, infant carriers, strollers, nursing pillows, changing tables, high chairs and other baby products.

Regulations mandating the treatment were well intentioned. Who wouldn't want to protect children from fire?

But there is a complete lack of evidence that using the chemicals saves lives, and a growing body of research suggesting that exposure to fire retardants is dangerous.

Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued statements strongly discouraging the use of fire retardant in home furniture, including baby products. The federal agency's scientists cited numerous studies linking fire retardant exposure to cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, thyroid disorders, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and a plethora of other health concerns.

Making matters worse, California's law has meant that baby products are often treated with the chemicals even in states that don't require such treatment. To avoid manufacturing two separate lines, one for California and another for other states, many manufacturers make their products sold in other states to California standards.

A study published last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found the flame retardant penta-BDE in the dust of California homes at four to 10 times the concentrations found elsewhere in the U.S., and 200 times higher than in Europe. It also found that Californians have twice the concentration of the chemical in their blood as people who live elsewhere in the United States.

Last year, the environmental group Friends of the Earth released a study: "Killer Cribs: Protecting Infants and Children from Toxic Exposure." Our testing showed that 56% of infant carriers, 44% of car seats and 40% of portable cribs have high levels of toxic fire retardants.

Those may be falsely low numbers. Since we did the testing, we have learned that some baby-product manufacturers no longer use the fire retardants we tested for, having switched to a different one, a chemical cousin so dangerous that the Consumer Product Safety Commission forced manufacturers to stop using it in children's sleepwear 32 years ago.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill that would end the requirement that many baby products be treated with fire retardants. But the fate of this bill, which has enjoyed bipartisan support until now, has also taken a strange turn.

At an Assembly hearing last week, the deputy director of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates baby products and reports to the governor, unexpectedly said that the agency was coming out in opposition to the bill. Under intense questioning, she acknowledged that her department had decided to oppose passage only hours before the hearing.

Some legislators now question how trustworthy the department was in the matter and whether intense lobbying by chemical companies against the bill have influenced the governor's staff.

The bill would be unnecessary if the governor exercised the authority he has to modify the regulations himself.

Despite the administration's opposition, the bill, which is supported by professional firefighters, makers of juvenile products and conservation, consumer and environmental justice groups, passed the Assembly Business and Professions Committee 7 to 2 and now heads to the Appropriations Committee.

For the benefit of California's infants, let's hope the Legislature holds firm.

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