Forget California’s new statewide ban on plastic bags for a moment. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown also signed into law legislation that could have just as far-reaching consequences for human health and the environment—a mandate that manufacturers disclose on a label whether couches and other furniture contain carcinogenic flame retardants.
A typical couch contains one pound or more of flame-retardant chemicals that have been linked to cancer and developmental delays in children. As furniture ages and becomes worn, particles of chemical-treated foam become mixed with household dust inhaled by children and others. Research published earlier this year by Duke University scientists, for instance, found that a group of toddlers they tested had nearly five times the levels of nonchlorinated aryl organophosphate flame retardants in their bodies than their mothers.
“A study by the California Environmental Protection Agency found that women in California have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries,” the preamble to the new law states. “Studies published in the journal Environmental Research show that children in California have much higher levels of flame-retardant chemicals than children elsewhere in the country.”
In fact, it was California that in 1975 required furniture manufacturers to meet a burn test, which they did by adding flame retardants to their products.
But there’s more to the story.
As the Chicago Tribune revealed in a 2012 investigation, for decades big tobacco has teamed up with chemical companies to press regulators to require the use of flame retardants in a plethora of products.
Why? Tobacco companies wanted to shield themselves from bad publicity when a smoker dies after inadvertently setting a sofa on fire from a lit cigarette. Chemical companies, of course, want to sell more chemicals.
Wrote reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe: “These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public’s fear of fire, and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause.”
Given the size of California’s market, the state’s flame-retardant regulations soon became the de facto national standard.
Now environmental and health activists hope California’s label law will have a similar impact on the market.
“While the labeling requirement is only mandatory for furniture sold in California, many manufacturers use the same labels for their furniture across the U.S.,” Veena Singla, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, wrote in an email. “I think that more transparency in the marketplace is good for consumers and good for business—now that the information will be available, consumers can make informed choices and businesses can respond to market signals and consumer demand.”
Tests of couches and other furniture treated with flame retardants have shown that the chemicals are largely ineffective. That helped prompt California this year to issue new regulations that no longer require manufacturers to soak their sofas in flame retardants. Instead, they can take other measures to meet fire safety standards.
The problem was, if you were shopping for a new couch, you had no idea whether it contained flame retardants.
Not anymore. Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, makers of flexible polyurethane foam, for upholstered and reupholstered furniture, must attach a permanent disclosure label to their products.
Singla said a recent survey of 16 major retailers by NRDC, which backed the label bill, showed that six of them already were beginning to phase out flame-retardant furniture. Those retailers included Ikea, Crate & Barrel, and Pottery Barn.
Of course, the bill doesn’t apply to existing furniture, and flame retardants will be polluting houses, offices, and landfills for years to come. But Singla said the label law finally gives people a choice to keep toxic sofas out of their homes.
“Consumers have generally been in the dark about which products did or did not contain the chemicals,” she said.