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SF to ban sale of upholstered furniture containing flame retardants linked to cancer

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A proposed ban on upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals would impact 200 San Francisco retailers. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco is expected to ban the sale of upholstered furniture with flame retardant chemicals.

The ban, introduced by Supervisor Mark Farrell, would extend to online sales and also include children’s products, such as booster seats, changing pads and high chairs.

These flame retardant chemicals, which come in the form of foams, like those found in sofas, are linked to cancer and increase risks of birth defects and learning disabilities, according to studies. Small particles of the foam travel through the fabric and are released into the air. Even cats are thought to succumb to thyroid complications through exposure.

In August, Maine became the first city or state in the U.S. to enact such a ban, effective January 2019, after state representatives overturned the governor’s veto of the proposal. Supporters said they were up against powerful lobbyists from the chemical industry.

San Francisco is now expected to follow suit.

The Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will vote Wednesday on Farrell’s legislation and, if approved, the full board will vote next week to make it law, which would also go into effect January 2019.

The law would impact the approximate 200 furniture retailers in San Francisco, of which 160 are independent shops. Seventeen other stores sell the children’s products that fall under the legislation, though the ban does not apply to second-hand resales.

There is no increase in cost to create products without the flame retardants, city officials say, and retailers would have one year to sell their inventory.

Farrell became involved in the issue when approached about a year ago by Sustainable San Francisco, a group that advocates for environmental policies.

Last week, the proposal was unanimously supported by the Small Business Commission and has support from the Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 labor union. Firefighters experience higher rates of cancer and flame retardant toxins are found in their blood.

Debbie Raphael, director of the Department of the Environment, said more recent research shows eliminating these fire retardant chemicals isn’t a choice of health over public safety.

“When you load up foam full of flame retardants, you don’t actually get any fire safety benefit,” Raphael said. “The benefit comes from when the fabric is fire-resistant, not the foam inside. It’s a false choice.”

California changed its testing standards in recent years and “furniture can meet all the fire safety standards it needs to without any flame retardants inside,” she said.

Tom O’Connor, president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 and co-founder of the 10-year-old San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, said, “Supervisor Farrell’s legislation is the first step in the direction to minimize our exposure to these chemicals.”

O’Connor said there remains ongoing research to examine cancer rates among firefighters to inform policies to reduce them, including a study of female firefighters with UC Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

“We are finding that in San Francisco female firefighters under the age of 50 have six times the national average of breast cancer as do people outside of the firefighter service,” O’Connor said.

He added, “The scariest building a firefighter goes into isn’t on fire, it’s the building where their oncologist works.”

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