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California should expand on San Francisco’s flame retardants ban

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San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to extensively regulate flame-retardant chemicals, and the rest of California should quickly follow suit. (Courtesy photo)
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Many are giving thanks this holiday to the first responders who battled the blazes in Napa and Sonoma counties last month. But the dangers firefighters face didn’t dissipate with the smoke. A lack of statewide action to eliminate toxic, flame retardants continues to jeopardize their health, along with the health of all Californians.

“We’re long overdue for bold statewide policy prohibiting the unnecessary use of flame-retardant chemicals,” Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, told me.

Thankfully, The City wasn’t afraid to step up and act last month. After determining flame retardants aren’t necessary to protect San Franciscans, the Board of Supervisors unanimously banned sales of upholstered furniture and certain children’s products containing the chemicals. The City is the first in the nation to regulate the toxins so extensively.

But San Francisco’s protections only extend as far as our borders. To protect Californians properly, the Golden State should expand The City’s policy beyond the Golden Gate. While any expansion will likely face challenges from industry trade groups, it’s a fight our local state legislators seem ready to take on.

Ironically, California is responsible for making the fight necessary in the first place. After the state adopted fire safety standards in 1975, manufacturers complied by dousing their entire inventories with flame retardants. California sparked the growth of these chemicals in homes across the country.

Unfortunately, questions about their health impacts also grew. Researchers at UC San Francisco and elsewhere have linked exposure to numerous problems, including lower IQ points in children, impaired fertility and even cancer. Since 2006, hundreds of firefighters have died from the disease.

“Our firefighters stricken with cancer are the canaries in the coal mine alerting you that our home and work place environments are not safe,” Adam Wood of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation told The City’s supervisors. “While we’re exposed to these chemicals intensively in their most toxic state while they’re on fire, these are the same chemicals that are degrading into fine powder form and off-gassing in the homes, workplaces and offices of every San Franciscan.”

Despite these serious health concerns, California policymakers only revised the safety standards to eliminate the requirement that manufacturers apply flame retardants. Sacramento has not banned the sale of the poisonous products.

As is often the story, powerful industry lobbyists have slowed meaningful action. The American Chemistry Council, the same group fighting plastic bag bans, has paid witnesses to present horrific, but fabricated, testimonies before state lawmakers. One particularly awful story involved a 7-week-old baby who died in a fire because her pillow didn’t contain flame retardants. It was later revealed there was no baby and no fire.

“Despite no evidence these toxic chemicals save lives, our state government failed to meaningfully act because of millions of dollars spent by the chemical lobby,” Supervisor Mark Farrell, who introduced San Francisco’s ban, told me.

The chemical lobby didn’t stymie all state legislators, though. The City’s former Sen. Mark Leno worked to restrict flame retardants during his tenure. In 2014, he successfully introduced legislation requiring manufacturers to label products containing the chemicals.

Although labels are certainly important, Californians deserve more. Friday Apaliski, who helps San Franciscans have healthier homes through her Sustainability Concierge business, has found labels concealed inside cushions and taped to the bottom of couches.

“Disclosure is only half the battle, because the onus is on the consumer to look and see,” she told me. “A ban in California would be better.”

Assemblymember David Chiu agrees. As supervisor, his legislation made it easier for San Francisco firefighters to receive benefits for illnesses such as cancer. Now, he seems prepared to continue his work to protect first responders in the Assembly.

“It is unacceptable that we have not been able to ban these chemicals at the state level, and it’s critical that the fight continue for firefighters, consumers and children,” he told me.

State Sen. Scott Wiener also seems prepared to expand the work of his predecessor, Leno, with a ban on toxic flame retardants.

“The state needs to look beyond requiring labels warning customers of the existence of these chemicals, and start enacting bans, especially on products for young children,” he said.

Like the wildfire devastation, the state’s culpability in putting the health of children, firefighters and families at risk hangs over us this holiday. But San Francisco’s landmark ban provides hope. If Chiu and Wiener can get the state to follow our lead, perhaps next year all Californians can give thanks for healthier homes.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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