Tagging toxics: Legislation green lights labeling of harmful chemicals in household furniture

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Today, the California legislature voted to give consumers the right to know whether they are bringing home a toxic couch. This first-in-the nation legislation (SB 1019), authored by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), requires the furniture’s attached label to clearly declare the presence or absence of added flame retardants. This bill was co-sponsored by NRDC along with Center for Environmental Health and California Professional Firefighters, and its passage is a victory for California consumers who want to make safer choices for their families.

The bill has bipartisan support throughout the legislature, indicating that both sides of the aisle agree: more transparency in the marketplace is good for business and good for consumers. The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown. If signed, the requirements for labeling of residential furniture would take effect in January 2015.

At left: Under SB 1019, consumers in California will be able to check the label on the bottom of a couch or chair to find out if the product contains added flame retardant chemicals, starting in January 2015.

Experts agree that these chemicals are not needed to make furniture fire safe.  In fact, when furniture with flame retardants burns in a fire, the flame retardants can create more toxic smoke that endangers the health of firefighters. The chemicals also pose threats during the furniture’s normal use.

A typical couch can contain a pound or more of flame retardants that leach out into the air and dust in the home.  These flame retardants are linked to a variety of serious health impacts such as cancer, hyperactivity, and reduced IQ. Although some toxic flame retardants known as “PBDEs” (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been banned since 2006, the replacement chemicals are no safer and present numerous health risks, just like the PBDEs.  Studies show that kids are particularly vulnerable to flame retardant exposures.

A recent study from Duke University found that toddlers have five times higher levels of the cancer-causing flame retardant chlorinated Tris in their bodies compared to their moms. And another new study found that the flame retardant mixture “Firemaster 550” might encourage the production of fat cells in the body.  This same mixture has already been found to cause obesity and anxiety in rats and researchers are worried that the same might be true for kids.

This year, California’s furniture flammability standard was finally updated to provide better fire protection, and flame retardant chemicals aren’t needed.  However, since the new standard does not prohibit flame retardant use, without labels, consumers wouldn’t be able to tell which products contain lurking flame retardants.  Many manufacturers use the same labels for their furniture regardless of where it is sold, so even though the labeling is only mandatory in California, consumers across the U.S. may have access to this important information soon.

Starting next year, families will no longer have to wonder if their comfy new sofa is actually a Trojan horse stuffed full of toxic chemicals. This legislation takes the mystery, and danger, out of furniture shopping and lets consumers make safer choices.