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Toxic flame retardants don’t need to be in furniture | COMMENTARY

Foam that contains fire retardants is visible within a piece of furniture,
Foam that contains fire retardants is visible within a piece of furniture, (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune)

Maryland has many good reasons for wanting to protect the health of its residents and environment by banning toxic flame retardants that have historically been required in many products in the name of fire safety. We now know that these requirements have led to growing health concerns for product purchasers and firefighters just doing their jobs.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, and Del. Bonnie Cullison, a Montgomery County Democrat, would do just that. The much needed legislation could save lives, protect workers, preserve the environment and improve fire safety by prohibiting the sale of children’s products, mattresses and upholstered furniture that contain toxic flame retardants.

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For decades, flame retardants have been used in everything from furniture to children’s products, driven by regulations that haven’t actually ended up doing much to protect consumers. These toxic chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, and reduced fertility. The chemicals migrate into household dust that gets ingested and inhaled by humans and pets. As a result, they are now ubiquitous in our households and workplaces, and have steadily built up in the environment and in humans.

Infants and firefighters face especially high exposure risks. Children are particularly vulnerable because their brains and reproductive organs are still developing. They come into greater contact with household dust than adults from crawling on the floor and frequently putting their hands in their mouths. These chemicals also show up in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

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Firefighters face especially high exposure to toxic flame retardants because they are used in many products that, when burned in fires, become even more toxic. Firefighters are rightfully concerned because they face higher levels of cancer compared to the general population. The Baltimore Sun’s front-page story on Oct. 24, 2019, detailed not only the rise in cancers in firefighters, but also the cost to Baltimore City and surrounding counties as they purchase additional equipment to reduce the risk to their personnel. It makes sense to reduce that risk and financial burden by expecting manufacturers to keep these toxic chemicals out of furniture and other products in the first place.

In 2017, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission became concerned about the public health risks posed by toxic flame retardants and issued guidance urging manufacturers to eliminate them from children’s products, mattresses and mattress pads and upholstered home furniture. It also urged importers, distributors and retailers to obtain assurances from manufacturers that such products are free of toxic flame retardants before purchasing such products for resale to consumers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission urged consumers, especially those who are pregnant or have young children, to obtain assurances from retailers that any products they consider purchasing do not contain such flame retardants.

On top of everything, according to research by the Green Science Policy Institute and others, these chemicals provide no meaningful fire safety benefit. The furniture industry has been at the forefront of efforts to change the regulations and get hazardous flame retardants out of furniture, working with public health and consumer groups in California and elsewhere to ensure that flame retardants are no longer required in furniture. Our efforts are working as the vast majority of furniture in the United States today does not contain flame retardant chemicals. The remaining uses can and should be ended.

Maryland and other states have taken previous steps to ban individual flame retardants, but use has shifted to other chemicals, resulting in people continuing to be exposed. The legislation being considered would eliminate all forms of needless chemicals. It is estimated that more than 80% of upholstered furniture is already produced without toxic flame retardants and moving to 100% is well within reach.

California has successfully banned these chemicals, and we encourage Maryland to adopt the proposed legislation, which is based on the California model. This legislation would make businesses, consumers and firefighters safer throughout Maryland, and replicating the California requirements will make the transition for all manufacturers much easier and quicker. We urge the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan to act without delay.

Brad Miller (bmiller@bifma.org) is the director of advocacy & sustainability for BIFMA, the non-profit trade association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers.

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