Recent scientific research discovered that people in California have significantly higher levels of brominated flame-retardants in their blood than people who live in other areas of the United States or in Europe. The work published by Dr. Ami R. Zota et al on October 1, 2008 shows that the levels of dangerous polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) chemicals are twice as high in the blood of Californians than in people living in other parts of the United States.
Furthermore, household dust from different American cites and states, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada was also analyzed for PBDE content. The dust in California households had four to ten times more PBDE flame-retardants than other states and 200 times more PBDEs than European dust. California has a unique law that requires furniture to be able to resist fire caused by an open flame for 12 seconds. In order to accomplish this resistance to burning, furniture foam and fabric is treated up to 30% by weight with chemical flame-retardants such as PBDE -- millions of pounds of PBDEs have been used since the California law was enacted in 1975.
Legislation in California that would have replaced Technical Bulletin 117, a 30 year-old state flammability standard for foam in furniture and baby products, failed in August by four votes after three Californian Senators changed their votes from a yes to a no and one Senator went from abstaining to voting no. In the year prior to the vote, these four Democratic Senators -- Leland Yee, Dean Florez, Gloria Negrete McLeod and Ron Calderon -- all received campaign contributions from Chemtura and/or Albemarle, which are flame-retardant and chemical manufacturing companies.
The bill was proposed because scientific research has shown that chemical flame-retardants are toxic to humans and other living things. The combustion of halogenated flame-retardants such as PBDEs also creates toxic dioxin and furan chemicals. According to the National Toxicology Program, any exposure to dioxin will eventually cause cancer.
Fire fighters are at particular risk because they are exposed to soot containing dioxin and furans on a regular basis. One fire fighter from Los Angeles County, Crystal Golden-Jefferson, passed away on July 20, 2005 from work place related non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She worked as a fire fighter paramedic for 19 years. While the specific cause of Golden-Jefferson’s cancer cannot be determined definitively, dioxins are known to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Opponents to this bill, AB706, also called The Crystal Golden-Jefferson Furniture Safety and Fire Prevention Act, argued that banning chemical retardants would jeopardize public health by reducing levels of fire safety; proponents said threat from fires would not increase since less-toxic alternatives are available and maintained that the bill would decrease health impacts from toxic flame-retardant chemicals.
Rather than ban specific toxic substances, AB 706 would have required the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to develop alternative assessment methods for fire retardant chemicals to categorize the chemicals’ relative safety. DTSC would have had the authority to prohibit or limit the use of fire retardant chemicals determined to be too hazardous for use. It also would have required that all products subject to state furniture flammability rules indicate on a label already mandated by state law whether they contain brominated or chlorinated chemicals. There is no federal law that protects consumers from toxic chemicals such as flame-retardants -- chemicals are assumed innocent until they have caused much harm and are proven guilty.
Brominated flame-retardants, such as those found in house dust and human blood, are put into couches, airline seats, electronic casings, building insulations and fabrics. They are slowly leaching out into the ambient environment because 1) they are semi-volatile chemicals and 2) they are not chemically attached to other material components in the products to which they are added. PBDEs evaporate into the air, settle in dust, get into water and food and leave a thin film on walls. They also get on bodies and fingers and into mouths, thereby increasing human exposure.
The next article in this series will look at the toxicity of PBDEs and related chemicals in biological systems such as the human body.