I see thousands of patients every year with chronic and acute illnesses — some are easily treatable, others present more of a challenge, and for some there is regrettably nothing that I can do. Many illnesses are triggered as a result of multiple factors. For these patients, I cannot help but think of the many ways in which their illnesses may have been prevented. What if they had better access to health information and healthcare services? What if we more highly valued prevention?
Right now members of the California legislature have the opportunity to take a step towards better health for Californians, and make a decision that values science-based prevention. This opportunity has nothing to do with the cost of health insurance, doctor visits, or taxes; this has to do with making our living and working environments safer by giving every Californian the chance to have furniture and baby products free of toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals. This opportunity is presented in SB 147 (Leno), The Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act.
Californians deserve furniture free of toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals. SB 147 would change an outdated and ineffective regulation, called TB 117, which has become a de facto requirement for flame retardant chemicals. Our state is the only jurisdiction in the world that requires bare furniture foam to withstand a 12-second open flame before being sold. TB 117 was created in the 1970s and now desperately needs to be updated to give us fire safety and leave out ineffective and toxic chemicals. If SB 147 is passed, manufacturers would be able to comply with a fire safety standard based on smolder ignition, and would no longer stand alone as a place that virtually requires the use of toxic chemicals that ineffective in reducing fire injuries and deaths.
Nationally, decline in fire injuries and deaths can be attributed to decreased smoking, adoption of fire-safe cigarettes, and improved fire safety measure like smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. According to the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, California’s decline in fire injuries and deaths is similar to other states. TB 117 has not been proven to increase fire safety since its adoption more than three decades ago. In fact, furniture foam treated with these chemicals ignites and burn after seconds, giving off high levels of toxic gases and smoke, which are the leading cause of fire injury and death.
We are exposed to flame retardant chemicals on a constant basis. It exists in our couches and office chairs, at our dining tables and in our bedrooms, and it lives and stays inside all of us after we breathe in contaminated dust particles. In the last forty years alone, levels of these chemicals have increased forty-fold in human breast milk.
I’m also the mother two wonderful boys. When I was pregnant with my second child, I was so concerned about the threat that flame retardants pose that I purchased an organic bed and pillow and slept on them throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Pregnant mothers and young children are the most vulnerable to endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens, and neurological and reproductive toxins.
Peer-reviewed animal and human studies find associations between flame retardants and decreased IQ in children, learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, cancer, cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), decreased sperm quality, increased time to pregnancy, and endocrine and thyroid disruption. A landmark scientific consensus on the health and environmental hazards of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, called the San Antonio Statement, was published in the December 2010 journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). To date, more than 200 scientists and physicians from 30 countries have signed to show their concern about the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties of these chemicals.
While I had the information and resources I needed to change my bed and pillows during pregnancy, the current regulation does not make this easy or give other Californians this opportunity for furniture and baby products. If SB 147 is passed, furniture costs could go down for manufacturers and therefore consumers, and it could help reduce these dangerous chemicals from our bodies and our environment. Significantly, for the business community, California’s products with foam could be viewed as safe once again, and manufacturers who make safer products could be rewarded in the marketplace. “Made for Sale in California” should not translate to “Warning! Toxic Chemicals!”
Every step counts. As a doctor, mother and a California citizen, I would like to encourage California legislators to put the health of their constituents and their families before the profit driven interests of chemical manufacturers who are pushing to keep this outdated and ineffective regulation in place. Take a stand for science-based prevention. SB 147 will make it possible for me to protect my family from toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals, and will also give me the chance to educate my patients about safer alternatives and prevention.
Dr. Harpreet Malhi is a physician in a community clinic serving low-income families.