I started a previous post extolling the virtues of using a stand up desk: “Let me guess, you’re sitting down while reading this.”
Hopefully this time, you’re not anchored to a sofa chock full of flame retardants but odds are high that you are.
As an architect with a cursory knowledge of toxics in homes, coupled with the fact that I have a two-year-old ripping around the house 4.5 feet below me, an investigative piece in the Chicago Tribune about the toxic nature of flame retardants caught my eye.
It seems as if the tobacco industry and a few chemical companies got off the sofa and crawled into bed with one another. Why? Years ago, the tobacco industry was pushed to create a safer burning cigarette to prevent home fires. But rather than shoulder that responsibility, among others, they deflected the burden to the chemical industry and pushed for safer, less flammable furniture.
The advocacy group Citizens for Fire Safety was born and lobbied to have flame-retardants built into manufacturing regulations. As pointed out by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, this group presented itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.” Turns out, the group only has three members, all of which are companies that make flame retardants.
Re-enter my two year old, or yours, or you for that matter. The problem is that these flame retardants are very close in make-up to PCBs, which have been linked to hormone disruption and cancer among others. They tend to settle out in the dust of our homes and are ingested primarily by children, who run around 4.5 feet below us, closer to the source, and adults secondarily. Babies are the most exposed to flame retardants (PDBE) via breast milk.
It gets even more diabolical when studies have shown that these fire retardants in furniture simply don’t do the job they are touted to perform. You can kick back in your Barcalounger, comforted by the fact that you have dangerous chemicals in your furniture that don't accomplish what they were supposed to do in the first place.
This all leads to a discussion of the Precautionary Principle. This principle says that we should avoid potentially harmful actions even if we are not scientifically certain of the extent of the potential damage. Traditionally in this country, chemicals have frequently been assumed not to cause harm prior to introduction into the marketplace.
Unfortunately, in some instances, as with flame retardants in furniture, we find out after the damage has been done. The European Union makes use of the principle in its REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemical Substances), which requires manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe prior to introduction into the marketplace.
Critics claim that this approach is too expensive. Granted, there are gray areas of risk versus reward. But this isn’t one of them. Ultimately, we’d have a system in place that would prevent blatant manipulation in the name of greed and at the expense of our health and more importantly our children's health.
Taking a step in the right direction, Governor Jerry Brown, apparently spurred by the piece in the Chicago Tribune, issued an executive order in mid June seeking to change Technical Bulletin TB117. Brown directed state agencies to research other pathways to make furniture fire safe. Currently approximately eighty percent of the furniture made in the United States meets this standard. Previously, state lawmakers have sought five times to change the law with no success. With the Governor's push, we might see a change to the law by mid year 2013.
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The Chicago Times piece can be viewed here.
See supplemental video here.