Opinion: New flammability standard is a win for low-income communities of color

Palos Verde coastline.  
Steven Harwood/flickr
  By Ami Zota, Patrice Sutton and Tracey Woodruff
  University of California, San Francisco

April 3, 2013


This year, California will take a big step to protect public health by updating its furniture flammability standard. A proposed new standard would reduce the use of flame retardants and create a science-based approach to fire safety that protects everyone from fires.

This change will be an especially important win for low-income communities of color. Rather than protect them, flame retardants pose a double burden to poor people of color; they get little fire safety benefit from these chemicals while bearing a disproportionate burden of the health risks.

For more than thirty years, California’s flammability standard has led to the use of harmful chemicals in virtually all U.S. furniture and many other everyday products in our homes, schools and workplaces. These chemicals, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and chlorinated Tris, move out of our couches, cushions and cars, into our air and house dust, and then into us. They can disrupt our bodies’ natural hormones, and have been linked to cancer, fertility problems, and harm to the developing brain, leading to attention problems and reduced IQ. They exert some of their most toxic effects on the developing fetus and child.

Californians overall, and low-income communities of color in particular, have some of the world’s highest levels of flame retardants in their homes and in their bodies. Residents of Richmond, Salinas and Oakland – which all have high poverty rates and large non-white populations – live in homes where dust contains 5 to 10 times more PBDEs than the rest of the country, and about 200 times more than other developed countries. Our research at University of California, San Francisco, has documented that pregnant women in California who are low-income and African American or Latina have among the highest flame retardant levels of all pregnant women worldwide. Data from UC Davis show that children in California have 2 to 10 times higher levels in their bodies than U.S. adults.

"Everyone deserves protection from harmful chemicals, especially when the use of these chemicals is ineffective and unnecessary."The chemical industry argues that low-income people of color need these chemicals the most because they face greater fire risks. However, as evidence of the dangers from exposure to these chemicals accumulates, so too has the evidence that flame retardants in furniture do not make anyone safer from fire. A recent government study found that these chemicals in foam furniture are ineffective against stopping the spread of a fire; likewise a leading fire safety expert has stated that chemically treated furniture is no safer than non-treated furniture. In fact, after 38 years of flame retardants in California, low-income communities of color still suffer from higher rates of fire-related deaths.

Everyone deserves protection from harmful chemicals, especially when the use of these chemicals is ineffective and unnecessary. The proposed standard, TB117-2013, will improve fire safety by addressing the place where fires start (the outer fabric of furniture instead of the inner foam) and designing safety tests targeted for smoldering cigarettes, the leading cause of fire-related deaths in homes, rather than open flames. These new and improved tests will advance fire safety without the use of toxic chemicals. While it will be an important victory for everyone, it will be especially important to the health of low-income communities of color.

Ami Zota, ScD, MS
Postdoctoral Fellow

Patrice Sutton, MPH
Research Scientist

Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH
Director and Professor

The authors are scientists at the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) (http://prhe.ucsf.edu/prhe/about.html) where they conduct research on prenatal exposure to chemicals including chemical flame retardants.

Views expressed are those of the authors and not Environmental Health News.


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