Californians: 45 Years of ‘Legal’ Toxic Exposure

PLAYING WITH FIRE - Governor Jerry Brown released a statement on June 18, directing our state agencies to revise its four decade long flammability standards.  Technical Bulletin  117 (TB 117) was meant to protect  the public from fire related hazards by giving occupants more time to escape a fire.

By using flame retardants, a fire would smolder rather than immediately engulf the room, giving occupants a life saving advantage.

This premise is being challenged by new findings.  He asked that new guidelines be put in place in an effort to protect public safety.

Friends of the Earth, board member, Russell Long stated, "Governor Brown today took the first step towards ending a toxic nightmare … and is to be roundly applauded”.

Several factors have contributed to the new interest in revising TB 117.  A recent investigative article in the Chicago Tribune took a close look at the deceptive nature of the chemical industry and how they market their products.  

In particular, it showed how the star witness for flame retardant manufacturers had duped public officials, in different states, with heart wrenching stories about the loss of an infant due to a burning candle near the crib.

Dr. David Heimbach, a University of Washington burn surgeon, really knew how to embellish the story. Each time he told the story, the details changed, and soon suspicion about the legitimacy of the story was aroused.

He told the Chicago Tribune that his testimony in California was "an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn't under oath." Dr. Heimbach's lawyer offered another explanation for why his clients’ stories didn't add up: He intentionally changed the facts to protect patient privacy.

Dr. Heimbach was changing more than the identity of the infant. He was changing the relevant details concerning the cause of the fire and the lack of a flame retardant.

His depiction of “Citizens For Fire Safety Institute”, a group he spoke for, was also under scrutiny. As it turns out, CFFSI was a front or a trade association for three of the largest flame retardant manufactures, namely Albemarle Corporation, Chemtura, and ICL Industrial Products.

They were looking to expand their 40 % share of the market (according to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based research firm). They needed a convincing spokesperson like Dr. Heimbach, and legitimate supporters.

Bringing firefighters and medical doctors into the fold, helped their cause. Who would say no to fire safety?

Another factor in revising TB 117, was the wide use of flame retardant in products, particularly in California where manufacturers are forced to use flame retardants in many household products.

You can find the use of flame retardants in carpet padding, couch and chair cushions, bedding, crib padding, baby walkers, baby changing pads, cradle pads, nursing pillows, heated appliances and electronics like television sets and much more.  

This exposure to a significant amount of chemicals known as PBDEs has health risks. Currently, you are not warned of the flame retardants presence or of its health risks on the product labeling.

Warnings, however, do nothing to reduce the amount of PBDEs in the environment. PBDE’s or polybrominated diphenyl ethers build up in the blood and tissue of living things.

Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, with Natural Resources Defense Council and University of California, School of Medicine says, “Research links many of these flame retardant chemicals to lower IQs and hyperactivity in children, and also to reproductive problems and endocrine disruption. The entire world is watching California to see if we will act to prevent continuing global contamination from chemicals used to meet TB 117.”

A study conducted by Environmental Working Group found that “toddlers and preschoolers typically had 3 times as much of these hormone–disrupting chemicals in their blood as their mothers” and that “eight of the 20 mothers we tested were also part of earlier EWG studies that found high levels of PBDEs in human breast milk and household dust. EWG tests of umbilical cord blood also found PBGEs in 10 out of 10 newborns.”

Tuesday, June 26, at the State Capitol, an assembly oversight hearing was held by the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee on the safety of flame retardant chemicals at Governor Browns urging.  Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski Chairs the oversight committee and began his opening remarks asking the Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Furnishings and Thermal Installation to comment on several questions he put to them.

•    How do they evaluate the public health impacts and environmental consequences?
•    What are the safety benefits of the current standards and how can they be revised to reduce health and environmental risks?
•    How did they meet statutory requirements?
•    What are the operational consequences of the resulting regulations?
•    What are the environmental and human health impacts of flame retardants?
•    How does the state integrate health and environmental protection with the use of these chemicals?
•    What future actions on flammability standards are needed to improve fire safety and human health and environmental protection?
•    How wide spread is the contamination of flame retardant chemicals?
•    How does the Ca, Dept. of Public Health work with federal regulators when determining flammability standards?

Senator Mark Leno opened the discussion by acknowledging the Chicago Tribune’s article and its revelations regarding Dr. Heimbach and “Citizens For Fire Safety Institute”.  Leno had authored 4 or 5 bills to regulate flame retardants in our homes that were defeated each time. He stated, “A powerful industry and their lobby were able to perpetuate a very destructive situation.” He acknowledged that chemical manufacturers want to deregulate the market place.  

No other state or country duplicated California’s TB117 policy of mandated flame retardant use and as a result, Californians have 4 – 10 times higher PBDE’s in their blood than any other state, which will continue to increase. Compared to other European countries, Californians have 200 times more.

Setting the tone for the hearing, Senator Leno asked that all speakers reveal whether they are paid by Citizens For Fire Safety Institute as their spokesperson.  For three hours supporters and objectors provided valuable insight on the use and impact of flame retardants.

The Chief of Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Furnishings and Thermal Installation, Tanya Blood was the first speaker and she provided an overview of how TB117 was amended in 1980 and 2000.

In 2010 14 additional flame retardant exemptions were added for infants: Baby walkers, booster seats, car seats, changing pads, floor play mats, chairs, high chair pads, cradles, swings, infant seats, nursing pads, bouncers, crib padding and play pen sides.

Chief Blood stated that new regulations have greatly reduced fire risks over the past 45 years. Smoke alarms, residential sprinklers and fire safe cigarettes have decreased fire fatalities. The Bureau looked at the impact of “California’s Furniture Flammability Standards” and TB117  and (GB117)as well as Open Flame and Smoldering Standards. She also stated that the Bureau would be introducing new standards after workshops are completed in mid July.

The proposed standards will include manufacturer participation, leaving Californians concerned about the sincerity of the Bureau’s efforts to make strong and tangible changes. Nothing short of a prohibition of flame retardant use would make amends to Californians whose trust and welfare was most grievously abused. Still, it will take one year to get approval and implement the new standards.

Dr. Michael Lipsich of the California Dept of Public Health, stated that Penta was the principle flame retardant product used on foam products. Over 7 pounds of the chemical is used in a standard couch.

As the cushions break down, it becomes a toxic airborne dust. When the cushion is ignited it releases more carbon dioxide than untreated cushions, and maybe be more toxic to first responders and victims.

He also shared the fact that old foam from couches are recycled into carpet foam padding and further exposes Californians to Penta’s harmful dust even though it was banned years ago.

Lipsich explained how the exposure to Penta affects the brain and neurological development and interferes with or mimics critic hormones like testosterone and estrogen. It interferes with children’s learning and memory and adult’s fertility and reproduction.

Penta was banned but new products have replaced it. Chlorinated Tris and Fire Master 550 are now commonly used. Chlorinated Tris is a known carcinogenic and Fire Master 550 is being studied by an independent group in Canada and the early results mimics Penta results.

Lipsich concluded his presentation summing up how fire safety is not achieved by the use of flame retardants. Untreated foam burnt cleaner and at about the same rate as treated foam.

No benefits outweighed the health and environmental impacts. He said compliance with TB 117 has resulted in high exposure to toxic chemicals and long term health impacts.

Other upcoming products have no data on them and like Penta, they will be touted as a great alternative. There is no requirement that these chemicals be tested to determine long term health impacts.

Senator Leno commends Dr. Lipsich on his testimony and makes the best statement of the meeting. “Using a precautionary principle, why should consumers have to prove that the chemical is dangerous and not the manufacturer have to prove that it is safe?” Leno asked the pertinent question, “when will we ban flame retardants, if not now …..when? In 2050?”

Dr. Doanld Lucas is a staff scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Lucas stated that he wanted to demonstrate how Chlorinated Tris burns on a nursing pillow, but “the smoke would be too toxic”. He felt that flame retardants should only be used where fire safety is established. Fire retardants are not fire proof, he emphasized.  

Mr. Crew, a paid spokesperson for an office furnishing manufacturing company had briefly made a case for discontinuing TB117 because compliance with it resulted in a loss of customers who are savvy enough to avoid the chemicals, especially when it came to shipping the furniture out of state.

Dr. Gordon Nelson and Joe Lag, are both spokespersons for the disgraced “Citizens for Fire Safety Institute.” They proceeded to make a video presentation. Joe Lag said they were eager to participate in the process of establishing new standards and felt it was long over due.  However, they held fast to the same arguments for TB117.

1.    Flame retardants reduce (PHRR) Peak Heat Release Rates and delays the time for flashover.
2.    Increases the escape time.
3.    Saving lives
4.    Reducing structural loss and response time.

Joe Lag asserted that while the population continued to grow, furniture fires declined by 2/3 since the implementation of TB117. However, he fails to attribute use of smoke alarms and fire sprinklers as the reason for this decline, which occurred at the same time.

He looks at falling deaths rates in residential fires, and comes to the same conclusion, still disregarding obvious factors.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski stated that he was working on the “Safe Chemicals Act” and would be introducing it in the upcoming months. He said it would require alternatives to flame retardants.

Throughout the testimony of the day, a few attendees took the time to distance themselves from Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, saying that CFSI use underhanded methods to connect themselves to other groups, duping them about their connection to chemical companies and that they are in no way partnering or associated with CFSI.

Battalion Chief Bryan Frieders of the “Firefighter Cancer Support Network” stated that a 2006 study found that 1 in 3 firefighters develop cancer and 30% die from cancer. He said that the toxic smoke in fires have more than 100 cancer causing agents in it.

Other fire fighters gave testimony on their personal battle with cancer and the cause was related to chemicals that cause bladder cancer. In fact 3 firemen from the same station had cancer.  

The fire fighters have formed their own cancer support groups that go beyond economic support. They provide cancer studies and screening for their profession. Six cases of cancer were found in early stages so far. Firefighters have as much flame retardant chemical in their blood as those who work in the flame retardant manufacturing industry, according to a recent but incomplete study.

Firefighters had 30% more PBDEs than the general population of California and 60% higher than the general population of other states.

Mr. Tony Stefani of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention, explained how most of the chemicals firefighters are exposed to permeates their protective gear and transfers from fire station to fire dorm. Protective clothing is no longer allowed within their sleeping quarters, whereas it used to at their bedside for fast responses. Simply wearing the equipment they are re-exposed to the hazards.  

Purchasing new equipment is not the solution in this economy and not practical. They asked that fire retardants not be used in the future and that decision makers look at the impact of their decisions on the lives of firefighters.

Ana Mascarenas, Policy & Communications Director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, began by stating that this “exposure is not necessary” and “No doubt, the industry will continue to misrepresent the facts.” She suggested that the committee increase smoking cessation programs to achieve greater fire safety. She admonished the committee, “for exporting our toxins to the rest of the world”.

Andrew McGuire, Executive Director for the Trauma Foundation urged the committee to use alternative methods to attain fire safety. He suggested that we needed “laws for residential sprinkler systems” and a way to dispose of contaminated furniture.

Other speakers gave tips to either vacuum with hepa filters or replace carpeting with hardwood floors. But they admitted that this is not the best solution for the prevention of exposure. The best solution is one of policy that removes PBDEs from our daily lives.

This discussion has been 45 years in the making, giving the chemical industry huge profits over environmental protection.

Governing agencies are morally liable for their decision making.

Whether they are reducing funding to educational programs that are needed due to health impacts caused by their flame retardant policies, or whether they are approving known contaminates and placing them in our homes.

The question is not whether flame retardants are dangerous and should be banned, because that is clear, it is whether we have the type of leadership that demonstrates moral character.

This is what this meeting will prove. With over 2000 studies on the health and environmental impacts of flame retardants I am more than appalled that 45 years of exposure happened while our paid guardians and various agencies abandoned their watch.

Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety offers this list of news advisories with experts and direct contact information below;

•    Chemical Industry Challenged to Repudiate Unethical Members, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families May 17, 2012
•    New 'Code of Conduct' needed, ASBC says, in response to Chicago Tribune Investigation of flame retardant industry 5/10/12
•   Reaction to Trib Expose from scientists, health advocates more 5/8/12
•    California Groups Respond to Trib News more 5/7/12

(Lisa Cerda is a contributor to CityWatch, a community activist, Chair of Tarzana Residents Against Poorly Planned Development, and former Tarzana Neighborhood Council board member.) –cw

Tags: Lisa Cerda, PBDEs, Flame retardants, Governor Brown, Senator Leno, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, chemicals, TB117, Citizens for Fire Safety Institute

Vol 10 Issue 53
Pub: July 3, 2012