A San Francisco Supervisor has just introduced legislation to make San Francisco the first city in the US to ban flame-retardant chemicals from furniture and children’s products. It’s going to be an uphill battle.
Back in 1975 California passed a law requiring that manufacturers perform open flame tests on all their products. This quickly led to the use of chemical flame-retardants and, because of the size of California’s market, this quickly became the norm for products across the country. However, continued research has linked these flame retardants to attention problems, cancer, lowered IQ scores, hormone disruption, and reproductive disorders. They are also highly carcinogenic when exposed to flame. Blood tests on firefighters in San Francisco have shown high levels of dioxins, a carcinogenic compound released when flame-retardant chemicals catch fire. In addition, the rate of breast cancer in female firefighters in San Francisco are six times the national average for women 40 to 50 years old.
But the genie is out of the bottle and it’s going to be difficult to put it back in. For one thing, selling flame-retardant chemicals is highly profitable and the chemistry industry has vigorously resisted any attempts to scale back the law. California now requires products to be labeled if they contain flame-retardant chemicals and allows manufacturers to use flame-resistant fabrics and coverings in lieu of flame-retardant chemicals but legislators have been unable to ban flame-retardant chemicals outright.
The second issue is the one of public perception that banning flame retardant chemicals will somehow make them less safe. This is he line that the American Chemistry Council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance is already using. They argue that removing the chemicals will remove a critical layer of fire protection. Convincing the average consumer that returning to the use of naturally flame-resistant fabrics and materials such as wool will be difficult.