Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Kind of Thing that Drives Me Nuts: Mandated Flame Retardant Edition

by Bretigne Shaffer

If I'm ever dragged away in a white coat, babbling and cursing incoherently, rest assured that it won't be because of some government plot to shut me up.  It will be because of people like this.
First, know that I am one of "those" moms.  I am the kind of mom who checks into all the ingredients in anything I buy for my children to eat (sometimes I ask more than once if the first person doesn't seem to know what they're talking about), I ask whether meat at a restaurant is organic and if it's not we usually don't get it (I do make exceptions), and I have spent untold hours online researching in minute detail the materials and chemical content of anything we buy that might ever come into contact with one of our kids.  I am that kind of mom.
There are lots of other moms out there who, like me, are concerned about toxins in their children's environment.  Some of them have set up some fantastic websites and blogs that pass on information about which products are relatively toxin-free and which ones are to be avoided.  I am grateful to these moms (they are usually moms) and for the work they have done that makes my life just a little bit easier.  
While looking for a non-toxic couch, I found one of these sites, Moms Clean Air Force, "...a community of hundreds of thousands of moms—and dads!—working together to combat air pollution..."  There was a very helpful article titled "Couch Detective: My Hunt for a Chemical-Free Couch", written by Lori Popkewitz Alper.  (And yes, obviously there's no such thing as a "chemical-free couch" - but I knew what she meant.) The article was about flame retardants in furniture, and how, as an informed consumer, one could become a "couch detective" and both ensure that the furniture you buy is free of toxic flame retardants, and educate those in the industry about the dangers of these chemicals and your preference not to have them. The author helpfully lists several brands that purport to make toxin-free furniture.
But then she went on to urge readers to: 
“Take action NOW.
“It’s time to take the burden away from the consumer and place it where it belongs – with the couch industry. Passage of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, would strengthen the way our government regulates toxic chemicals by requiring more thorough health testing of products BEFORE these chemicals end up in the bodies of our children.
So here's what's crazy about that.  The reason that there are toxic flame retardants in furniture is because there are laws requiring toxic flame retardants to be put in furniture.  Both federal and state legislation have imposed fire-prevention standards on everything from mattresses to upholstered furniture and even children's sleepwear. So the idea that this is somehow the fault of the “couch industry” and that we need to run to our senators to protect our families from these bad couch people who want to put toxins in our furniture is a little hard to swallow.  
It turns out there's some good news though.  As a jubilant Rachel Sarnoff reports, "..Governor Brown just effectively banned flame retardants in California, resetting a national standard. Woot!"
It's true.  As of last month:
"...a new flame retardant standard will take effect, eliminating the need for furniture makers to inject the chemicals into upholstered chairs, sofas, and other items.
“Flame-retardants may also disappear from baby gear, such as booster seats and changing pads, which will no longer be subject to flammability standards.
“‘It’s wonderful, after years of work, to see this become a reality’ said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California Berkeley and director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
“Starting in January, toxics-wary consumers can look for furniture with the “TB 117-2013″ tag, and ask whether the item has been treated with flame-retardant chemicals.
“‘I was practically screaming with happiness,’ said Blum, who’s been working on the flame retardant issue since the 1970s.
“The new law, called “TB 117-2013″ doesn’t forbid furniture manufacturers to use the chemicals. Instead, it sets a new flammability test — known as a “smolder test — that furniture makers can meet without using the flame-retardant chemicals.”
So let me get this straight.  After thirty-nine years, California Governor Jerry Brown undoes some of the damage he did when he signed into law a bill requiring toxic chemicals to be put in various consumer products.  And for this he gets a "Woot!"?  
Somehow, even when they are undeniably the ones who created the problem in the first place, politicians are seen as the heroes - even by those who are most virulently opposed to the damage these bozos initially created. It's as if there is a massive, collective blind spot when it comes to politicians and the state. There are some people - a great many people in fact - who simply cannot bring themselves to see the institution of government as part of the problem, but only as the best (and often only) route to a solution. 
So here's a thought for Rachel and Lori and Arlene, and all the others who are concerned about toxins in the environment:  Whenever you see something out in the world as crazy as toxic chemicals sprayed on things your kids are going to be sleeping on, ask yourself WHY any manufacturer would do something like that.  Consider the possibility that it's not that the manufacturer wants to poison your family, but something else.  Consider - and I know this will be tough for some of you - consider the remote possibility that those politicians you look to to make everything better and protect you from the evil people trying to sell you stuff aren't as friendly as you think they are, that they may not be there to serve your interests, and that it just might be possible that they are at the very source of the problems you seek to fix.

Bretigne Shaffer blogs at On the Banks.

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