For years firefighters and environmentalists have warned of the dangers from upholstered furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, hormone disruption and lower IQ development. Although state safety regulations allow the use of flame retardants, they are not required — the choice is left to manufacturers. Today Californians wishing to buy a sofa or easy chair free of toxic chemicals are in for a surprise when they try to get information in stores about the presence or absence of flame retardants. An informal survey of West Los Angeles furniture showrooms recently encountered these scenes:

    • When asked whether a $579 sofa contained such chemicals, a salesman at Macy’s Furniture Gallery on West Pico Boulevard said he did not know and suggested trying the store’s website — which included no information about flame retardants.
    • At the nearby upscale LA Furniture Store a saleswoman assured a potential customer that all furniture sold in the United States is “flame protected.” She did not know, however, whether a sofa on sale for $1,680 contained flame retardants and said she could not move the couch to look at its label.
    • One salesman at Urban Home, which sells more modestly priced furniture, admitted hearing something about the controversy over flame-retardant chemicals, but didn’t know whether a $399 sofa contained them. He lifted up the couch, but its label didn’t indicate their presence or absence.

None of this is news to Judy Levin, pollution prevention co-director of the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

“People have a very important decision to make that goes beyond color or style when they purchase furniture,” Levin says, adding that currently “there’s no way for consumers to go into a store and really find out whether a piece of furniture that’s going to be in their home for decades contains flame-retardant chemicals.”

According to Levin and other environmental experts, that flame retardants in furniture do not provide a meaningful fire safety benefit because, they say, the retardants are placed into the interior foam. Yet people don’t typically sit on bare foam, but on foam that is covered by an upholstery fabric. In an actual fire, this fabric is the first substance to ignite and once it begins to burn, the flames become much larger than the flame retardants inside the foam are equipped to handle. The result, Levin and others claim, is that people get the toxic exposure from the burning flame retardants without the fire safety benefit.

Environmentalists also say that flame-retardant chemicals continually migrate out of upholstered furniture and can be absorbed or inhaled into the body and bloodstream. “Children are  more vulnerable because the main route is through contaminated house dust,” says Veena Singla, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that babies and toddlers face particular dangers when they crawl on floors.

State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill co-sponsored by Levin’s group that would require upholstered furniture manufacturers to clearly disclose whether or not furniture sold in California contains flame-retardant chemicals. The information would be provided on the product labels that are already required by current regulations.

“It’s very simply a free-market, consumer-choice piece of legislation,” Leno says.

“This is a right-to-know bill,” agrees Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. “Consumers want to know if they are bringing an unhealthy piece of furniture into their homes.”

Senate Bill 1019, having been approved by that chamber, will be taken up by an Assembly committee June 24 and is likely to be voted on by the full Assembly later this summer. It is also co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California Professional Firefighters union. (Disclosure: the union is a financial sponsor of Capital & Main.) It is the plight of firefighters, who cannot exercise consumer choices when they battle conflagrations, that has given the bill its emotional momentum.

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Firefighter James Byrnes shows brain surgery scar.

The consequences of inhaling flame-retardant chemical smoke may take years to become apparent, the bill’s advocates say. James Byrnes, a 22-year veteran of the Marin County Fire Department, says he was driving while off duty in 2011 when he suffered a seizure. Byrnes was rushed to a hospital where doctors performed emergency brain surgery and removed a tumor that Byrnes describes as “half the size of a game hen.” The doctors were puzzled — until they learned that Byrnes was a firefighter, and determined his brain cancer to be job related. His type of cancer is associated with people who work in industrial environments and are heavily exposed to toxic materials.

2008 Massachusetts study established a connection between firefighting and several types of cancer. The report, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, particularly noted elevated occurrences among that state’s firefighters of brain cancer, attributable to possible exposure to some of the same chemical compounds found in upholstery flame retardants.

Byrnes, 41, acknowledges that flame-retardant chemicals were considered a good thing when first used decades ago. But, he says, as the dangers associated with them have increasingly become known in recent years, their status resembles that of asbestos, a heat-resistant material that was once widely used and has been shown to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other serious diseases.

“Asbestos was called a miracle material,” says Byrnes. “But it came with a pretty heavy toll.”

The chemical and furniture industries’ campaign against flame-retardant regulation is in some ways reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s fight against government controls. Because California is such a large furniture market it often sets de facto health and transparency standards. Leno’s bill has national implications for consumers, manufacturers and retailers, and is fiercely opposed by the American Home Furnishings Alliance, the North American Home Furnishings Association and the Polyurethane Foam Association. Beyond these and other industry groups, it is being fought by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and the California Chamber of Commerce.

John Kabateck, NFIB’s California executive director, claimed in an opinion piece that the bill was a tactic “by activist groups to circumvent the scientific review process and advance an agenda designed to intimidate furniture makers so they’ll stop using these chemicals.”

In an interview with Capital & Main, Ken DeVore, NFIB’s California legislative director, says that Leno’s bill is overly broad. “If a chemical is proved to be dangerous, then warn,” DeVore says. “Don’t do a blanket, sweeping warning across the board.”

Leno says that the chemical industry has a lengthy history of using deceptive tactics when it comes to fighting regulations. In one notable example, a prominent burn surgeon told California lawmakers in 2011 about a seven-week-old-baby who was burned in a fire started by a candle as she lay on a pillow that lacked flame-retardant chemicals. The dramatic testimony helped convince California legislators not to cut back use of flame retardants. But in a groundbreaking series of articles published in 2012, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the doctor’s testimony was false and that a chemical industry front group had paid him $240,000 for his help. Last month, the physician, Dr. David Heimbach, who was facing disciplinary charges in Washington State, surrendered his license.

Indeed, the evidence against flame retardants is persuasive enough that earlier this month Kaiser Permanente, the country’s largest HMO system, announced it will stop purchasing furniture treated with flame retardants.

“Chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, among other problems,” said a Kaiser press release. “Concern over the health impacts to children, pregnant women and the general public has been growing in recent years, as scientific studies have documented the dangers of exposure.”

In response, the North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) of the American Chemistry Council has asked the health care giant to reconsider its decision.

“The use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture can help prevent fires from starting and/or slow the rate at which small fires become big fires, providing valuable time for persons to escape danger,” Cal Dooley, the council’s president and chief executive, wrote in a June 17 letter to Kaiser.

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Tony Stefani, retired firefighter and cancer survivor.

“That is a flat-out myth,” counters Tony Stefani, a retired, 28-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department. Stefani, 63, is a cancer survivor who believes his disease may be linked to breathing toxic substances on the job, including smoke filled with flame retardants. In 2006, he founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation for that city’s active and retired firefighters.

“Shouldn’t everybody be aware of what we are exposed to?” he says when explaining his support for Leno’s bill.

The Marin County firefighter James Byrnes says that he is concerned about the next generation of Americans, and that he doesn’t want his four-year-old son exposed to flame-retardant chemicals.

“I don’t want him absorbing or ingesting them,” he says, adding that SB 1019 will provide crucial information to Californians about whether the products they are thinking of purchasing contain potentially dangerous chemicals.

“It gives people the chance to make an educated decision,” Byrnes says.

Gary Cohn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles TimesBaltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, and writes currently for Capital & Main.