SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown wants to free manufacturers of furniture and baby products from having to treat those items with flame retardants that environmentalists say are ineffective and create health risks.
His administration proposed new rules Friday, months after Brown and health groups cited studies by the California Environmental Protection Agency and others indicating that California toddlers and nursing mothers had higher levels of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies than did those not exposed to treated products.
"The draft regulations are an important step in ensuring fire safety while reducing the use of toxic chemicals," Elisabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown, said Friday.
The proposed changes for upholstered products sold in California come as health advocacy groups and the chemical companies that make the retardants are locked in a heated dispute over efficacy and safety.
California's rules are adhered to by large manufacturers of furniture sold in other states as well, and the chemical industry has spent millions fighting changes that would hurt its business. Chemical companies say that existing standards are needed to protect consumers from injury or death in fires.
Currently, furniture makers must provide upholstery that does not ignite when the foam inside the cushion is exposed to an open flame for 12 seconds. Many manufacturers use chemical flame retardants on the foam so they can pass the test, according to Russ Heimerich, a state spokesman.
The new rules would allow couches and other upholstered furniture to meet state standards if the foam does not ignite from a smoldering cigarette, a test that can be passed without chemical retardants, according to Heimerich.
Cigarettes are "the way most fires start" in the home, said Heimerich, a spokesman for the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, which proposed the rule change at Brown's request.
The new rules also would exempt from the flammability standard a long list of baby products including booster seats, car seats, changing pads, high-chair pads and infant mattresses. That would allow manufacturers to forgo chemical flame retardants in those products and use less-expensive alternatives, Heimerich said.
"With this new standard, families will be able to buy furniture and other products without these harmful chemicals, since smart companies will start making products that are fire-safe and do not use toxic flame retardants," said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health.
Attempts to change the 38-year-old standard through legislation have been unsuccessful for years in the face of opposition from chemical companies arguing that alterations would put Californians at risk.
A chemical-industry group said Friday that it plans to fight the proposal during a 45-day public comment period before any rule is finalized by the state.
"Regrettably, if this proposed regulation moves forward, it will reverse a fire safety standard that has provided an important layer of protection to Californians for over 35 years," said the statement by the North American Flame Retardant Alliance.