Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry

This is cross-posted from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families blog here. Much thanks to the wonderful folks there for publishing it!

Here’s a basic truth every Mom knows: it’s far easier to avoid making a mess than to clean it up after the fact. And here’s another fundamental rule we all tell our kids: do not lie.

Sadly, in the case of chemical flame retardants, both of these rules for responsible behavior have gone by the wayside. As the powerful Chicago Tribune series, Playing with Fire, showed last spring, the chemical industry created “Citizens for Fire Safety,” a front group which lied to lawmakers in California about the need for chemical flame retardants in furniture. Yet research shows that there is no proven safety benefit from using flame retardants.

As it turned out from the painstaking investigation by Tribune reporters, the group’s main “safety” representative, Dr. David Heimbach, actually invented details about children who had burned to death in tragic circumstances, twisting the terrible, heart-breaking stories to serve the lobbying goals of the three chemical company backers for the astroturf group. This went beyond the typical obfuscation in industry lobbying – it was fraud on the legislature.

Here’s something interesting: unlike the federal government, the state of California does not have strong laws to penalize people who lie to government officials. In contrast, if you lie to a federal official, you can go to jail or pay a hefty fine. When I scoured documents submitted to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was considering its rule on flame retardants, I found nary a story about burned babies. My own conclusion: they chose to lie when they thought they could get away with it.

So that’s the whopper. What about the mess? A new study out just yesterday shows that a stunning 85 percent of sofas contain harmful flame retardant chemicals, and that of couches sold over the past seven years, nearly all – 94 percent – have them. Researchers surveyed the foam in 102 sofas from all over the country through aptly named “couch biopsies,” analyzing the chemicals. The industry’s veil of silence and repeated refusal to share with researchers what’s in their sofas makes this painstaking approach necessary.

The study also found that pounds of chemicals are used, as much as 11 percent of the overall foam. This confirms what we all thought, but is still outrageous when you consider that my family, and perhaps yours, spends a small fortune on organic foods to eliminate parts-per-million of pesticide residues.

Chemicals being used as flame retardants are linked to health harms, including lowered fertility and IQ and cancer-causing impacts. We also know that these substances break down over time, becoming part of household dust. Once they are in the dust, we all breathe them in. Toddlers and young children, who spend a ton of time on the floor and who put everything, including their hands, into their mouths, have three times more of these dangerous chemicals in their blood than do adults. A recent study also found a correlation between a pregnant woman’s level of one chemical and negative health outcomes in the child at age 7, linking it to decreased IQ, fine motor coordination, and an ability to focus attention.

The real up-shot of this study is that we now have a huge mess on our hands. There are the human costs: most American homes are now polluted with pounds of harmful chemicals, and we will have to measure, as we did with lead pollution, the value of our children’s lost IQ points, likely for several generations. And then there are the ecological costs, which are also staggering.

Furniture sales (though not just sofas and upholstered chairs) totaled about $8 billion per month in 2012. Consider the resources involved, the packaging and shipping of such large items, and the pride everyone feels in refurnishing their home. And now think about the landfills as many people replace these items with safer sofas and chairs. This foam will break down for years, getting into our environment and bloodstream of humans and animals.

My blog lists some options for buying sofas without flame retardants in them, and my traffic was through the roof yesterday. The most common search term was “sofa without flame retardants.” (The amazing Green Science Policy Institute also has a nice list on their front page.)

Given that the rule in California was suspended by order of the Governor, companies should now realize the significant opportunity to sell couches without these chemicals in them to a newly awakened American consumer. And they should consider that at least one of these chemicals – chlorinated tris, or TDCPP – now requires a label as a probable carcinogen under a separate California disclosure law. The new study found that tris is the substance most commonly used in furniture after 2005, but I doubt consumers will be happy to buy furniture with cancer tags sticking out of them.

And what about a more radical idea: requiring furniture makers to take back and replace it with furniture without chemical flame retardants? If the government made them collect and remediate the chemicals, we would get far less of it dumped into the environment. And it would only be fair: consumers should not have to pay to replace new furniture, just so they – and their children – are not poisoned in their living rooms. Instead, those that profited should pay for the clean-up, just as we do with tire recycling programs or Superfund sites.

Of course, that’s just a fix for sofas. We’ll see this story about greed, lies and profits on chemicals over and over again, unless we do something fundamental to require the industry to put people first. The Safe Chemicals Act, which got a hearing in a key Senate committee last spring, is the answer, because it would set up a system for approval of chemicals that requires real consideration of the impacts they may have on health, including the health of vulnerable groups like children.

Here’s how to ask the Senate to act. You can think of the bill as the good parent that the chemical industry obviously needs, to teach them the basics of how human beings should act.

Sign the Petition to California Lawmakers: Repeal the Flame Retardants Rule

Cover of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Cover of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

[Update: California Governor Brown just ordered regulators to rewrite the flame retardant rule! I’ll update the petition to reflect this shortly…]

I’m still stewing about the flame retardants issue, and I’m sure you are too.

OK, so I threw out my sofa. But I still have a lot of other toxic stuff in my house, and I realize that’s not a very practical solution. After all, where would we sit?

The folks who caused this truly unfortunate situation for the whole country are really just the lawmakers in Sacramento who have failed to repeal that state’s stupid rule on flame retardants, Technical Bulletin 117.

So I figure, let’s bring our message to them. I’ve started a petition on Change.org to California lawmakers — please sign on and tell your friends to sign it. The text is below.

You may recall that, after I tossed my toxic sofa, I made a promise to keep up the heat on this issue.

Well, when we get enough signatures — 50,000? 100,000? 200,000? 500,000? — to effectively take the fight to them, I will personally pack Maya up on the plane and we will fly to California to deliver our petition to the Governor, the state lawmakers, and the press.

And you’re welcome to join me in California — the more the merrier!

So here’s my petition — please go here to sign it on Change.org:

To:  California Lawmakers

From: The Rest of Us

Re: Get These Flame Retardants Out of My House

So, you were lied to. We get it – we’ve been lied to sometimes too. But now, thanks to the Chicago Tribune, you know how you were played.

You know that the chemical industry made up fake facts about dead babies to dramatize its lies. You know about the chemical industry’s front group, Citizens for Fire Safety, and its ties to people, tactics and strategies used by Big Tobacco.

And thanks to testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you also know that chemical flame retardants don’t do anything to make a fire safer, but make it more toxic and dangerous. In other words, they don’t help.

Instead, they poison our children, multiplying their risk of cancer by seven. They get into the dust and air inside our homes, and then into our bodies and blood. They are linked to birth defects, lowered IQ and fertility and other serious health problems.  Your own state of California just declared that one kind of chemical flame retardant, TDCPP, is a “probable carcinogen” under Proposition 65.

You have a right to protect the health and safety of people in California. And you are often a national leader, an example for the country.

But here’s our question on this one: what gives you the right, now that you know the truth, to keep poisoning all of us for no reason? How can you spend one more day as a lawmaker and not move to rescind Technical Bulletin 117, the rule on chemical flame retardants in furniture?

We want to believe in you. We want to believe that now you know the truth, you wouldn’t continue to do this to us and to our families.

But we really do need you to act today to repeal this disgusting and dangerous law. Show us that about this at least, we’re not wrong to think that truth will lead the way.

Signed,

All of us

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More resources:

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Please join me in gathering signatures on this petition!!!  Pass it along to your friends, and let’s see if we can shake things up.

Curb Alert: Free (Toxic) Sofa

Maya had finally gone down for her nap this afternoon, and I thought it was the perfect time to finally read all of the many articles that the Chicago Tribune published last week on the harms of chemical flame retardants.

I’ve been looking into this issue in a cheeky 4-part “Sofa Saga,” so I’d already skimmed a few of the pieces, but had not really had time to digest the whole series. I was reminded of the power of the investigation by Nicholas Kristof’s excellent column today as well.

So I was reading along, and feeling pretty good about things, actually, given that I hadn’t gotten any of the facts wrong in the blog posts, when I came to this paragraph:

In 2006, researchers at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cautioned that adding chlorinated tris to furniture would expose children to nearly twice the daily dose deemed acceptable by the federal agency. The cancer risk for children during the first two years of life would be seven times higher than what most physicians, scientists and regulators consider acceptable, according to the safety commission’s report.

Seven times the risk of cancer. Seven. My heart basically stopped for 20 seconds. My stomach rose up and took over my throat.

The sofa I have from Ikea has chlorinated tris in it, according to research by Heather Stapleton. I sat on that couch almost every day of my pregnancy, and my daughter Maya has played on it basically every day of her 20 months of existence. Sometimes, she licks it.

She was “reading” to her stuffed bear just today, sitting there, and here she is at 8 months:

When not sitting on that sofa, I was self-righteously running around town tracking down sources for expensive grassfed, organic beef to get rid of trace amounts of pesticides. Or spending a small fortune on wooden toys.

While sitting on that sofa, I chatted with the New York Times reporter who wrote an article calling me paranoid about toxic chemicals.

While sitting on that sofa filled with literally pounds of carcinogens, I’ve spent hours researching healthier products for my family, including a sofa without flame retardants. They make fools of all of us.

Some lame rationalizations flitted through my mind, while my heart grew heavy and sad. I open the windows sometimes, I thought. We vacuum. I began to feel physically sick.

Fury does not really describe it. I tried to finish the article. But I was sitting on that sofa.

A new, better sofa is eventually on the way, but it’s likely several weeks away at least, and maybe a month.

I thought about sitting on the floor. And then I thought, fine. The floor it is.

I was so angry that I was able single-handedly to put it out on the curb.

Here’s the note I posted to the neighborhood list serv (they already think I’m nuts):

Curb Alert: Free black “leather” large Ikea sofa, decent condition

Here’s my now-typical awkward caveat:

I dumped it because it’s full of a particularly harmful form of flame retardants, called chlorinated tris, that was banned from children’s PJs in the late 1970s as a mutagen — and is also now known to be a potent carcinogen.

I was already following this issue on my blog, but the Chicago Tribune series last week, which I am just reading now, made me actually get up and put it on the curb. I’m furious, actually.

It looks like rain, so if you want it, better come and get it.

Laura

Here’s the thing, Citizens for Fire Safety, you liars, I’m looking at you. And I’m a mom.

If my daughter ever gets sick in any way that can be tied back to her nearly two years of crawling all over this toxic piece of junk, I will personally show up everywhere you try to deceive state legislatures to finish the job of exposing you that was started by the Tribune.

And hey, chemical manufacturers, like the flame retardant chemical makers — Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura (“Chemtura”? Really?) — I’m telling you now, you have a problem that a little chemical switcherooni is not about to fix.

I’m done letting you be the only ones who know what’s in my house, and in our air, and in my daughter’s blood. What’s in our bodies can’t be your proprietary little stew of hazards. You want to keep it proprietary? Keep it out of my house.

I’m really over this experimentation on all of us. I’m so over learning two years down the road that, despite my best efforts, you’ve been poisoning my daughter, lying to lawmakers, and laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ve messed with the wrong mom. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. You’d better hope that lawmakers in California get to you first.