- Author: Suanne Klahorst
Dan Morain’s opinion piece on California Technical Bulletin 117 in the Sacramento Bee last Sunday has most of the facts we need to learn about our toxic couches. Drafted in the 1970s to mandate the fire protection for household furnishings, the bulletin was intended to save lives. That was in a naïve era, before methods could measure fire retardants in women and children or correlate their accumulation over years in our bodies to lack of attention, poor motor skills and low IQ in our children.
UC Berkeley Professor Brenda Eskenazi and her coauthors measured fire retardants in 300 pregnant women and their children at 7 years of age, and correlated them with low scores for neurological development. At UC San Francisco, Tracey Woodruff measured flame retardants in pregnant women and found levels twice as high in California women than those living elsewhere. These substances accumulate and persist in some body tissues for up to 12 years.
Policymakers and scientists agree that Technical Bulletin 117 needs reform, since it requires the highest levels of flame retardant in the nation and perhaps the world, as high as 5 percent of the weight of the foam. Researchers who tested dust in California homes found that new couches were just as likely to result in dangerous levels of fire retardant dust as old furniture. If I were to look for a retardant-free couch tomorrow, I would have a difficult time finding one. Nor would I be able to determine which furnishings to avoid, since the chemical content of these items is considered a trade secret.
But my precautionary dilemma is not as troubling for me as it is for the UC hospitals that continually expand to serve our communities. They also purchase new furniture with flame retardants, including crib mattresses for their most vulnerable patients. Practice Greenhealth and the Healthy Hospital Initiative promote the greening of hospitals and grapple nationwide with regulations that prevent members from removing toxins with potential harm to patients and staff. The retardant manufacturing companies have pushed back aggressively after four decades of public policy became their principal market strategy.
Governor Brown has asked state agencies to re-examine the benefits of flame retardants against their long-term costs. Until they can agree on a solution that first, does no harm, I will have an uneasy relationship with my couch.