Bill Would Ban Furniture with Toxic Flame-Retardants

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The evidence against chemical flame-retardants has been mounting for decades. Not only do they not prevent fires, but these synthetic additives to furniture and plastics are dangerous to human health and the environment.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, some of the most common flame-retardants have been linked to cancer, lower IQ and reduced fertility, and they can harm fetal and child development.

While some chemical flame-retardants have been banned, others remain in regulation limbo. A Senate bill is attempting to ban the sale of bedding and furniture in Rhode Island that contain a class of chemicals known as organohalogens. Specifically, the bill would prevent the use of flame-retardants that contain bromine and chlorine.

The powerful lobbying group American Chemistry Council (ACC), however, testified that a ban on organohalogens is too broad and includes chemicals that may not be harmful. Senators and witnesses at the March 7 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee said the bill must include a broad class of flame-retardants to prevent the chemical industry from making comparable chemicals that skirt the law.

“They take a chemical off the market; they tweak the formula a little bit; they change one little aspect of it and that chemical goes right back into mattress pads, nursing pillows, crib mattresses that children are sleeping on,” said David Gerraughty, an organizer for Clean Water Action of Rhode Island.

It’s not the first time a bill has been filed to ban flame-retardants, but this year some compelling witnesses testified in favor of the ban.

Donna MacDonald was Providence firefighter for 15 years, until she retired in 2016 because of occupational cancer. MacDonald testified that flame-retardants may slow fires but the smoldering of fabric and furniture releases a harmful concentration of toxins. The chemicals are ingested by firefighters and the public through breathing or touching the invisible emissions.

“If we can limit the amount (of exposure) by limiting the fire-retardant chemicals and lowering the cyanide levels it’s going to be a big help,” she said.

Hannah Gardener, an epidemiologist from the University of Miami, testified that this class of flame-retardants leaks over time from furniture and other household products. They migrate into the air or collect in dust, which are ingested by children, adults and pets.

Members of the Judiciary Committee challenged the testimony of Stephen Rosario, an ACC lobbyist. Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, compared flame-retardants to the fight against cigarettes and asbestos.

“I can only help but feel we are having an asbestos debate again like they did in the '30s, '40 and '50s,” Lombardi said. “They talked about this wonder product called asbestos that was going save houses from fires and be the greatest thing since slice bread. And we know the rest of the story.”

Rosario said the bill is broader than other bans by prohibiting an entire category of chemicals rather than specific flame-retardant’s. He said studies show that individual chemicals can't accurately be attributed to cancer, especially in firefighters who are exposed to numerous elements.

If passed, the ban would make it unlawful for a manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer in Rhode Island to sell residential upholstered bedding or furniture that contains 100 parts per million or greater of any organohalogen flame-retardant chemical.

The bill was held for further study. A companion House bill is expected to have a hearing this month.