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New York should ban toxic and ineffective fire-retardant chemicals

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toxic Credit: iStock.com

In a devastating piece of investigative reporting in May, the Chicago Tribune laid out the whole sordid tale of how industry conspired to kill legislation a designed to protect children from harmful chemicals. It also told the equally unseemly story of how those chemicals got into furniture in the first place.

There’s a version of that nasty little play going on right now, in Albany. More about that in a minute. First, how did flame-retardant chemicals get into furniture? Simple: Big Tobacco did it.

Long before decades of cigarette smoke could kill them with lung cancer or emphysema, too many smokers were dying more spectacular, highly visible, bad publicity-creating deaths — in house fires that began when they fell asleep while smoking. There was a public outcry to do something about it. Characteristically, Big Tobacco chose to deflect attention away from its own lethal products. Instead, the industry worked hard to focus the outrage on the real culprit: furniture.

So, the industry solution to these unfortunate deaths was to add flame- retardant chemicals to furniture. The result: a vast increase in sales of flame-retardant chemicals, even though they’re ineffective. The Tribune quoted the author of one study as saying: “The fire just laughs at it.”

So, if these chemicals don’t stop fires, what do they do? Again, the Tribune hit that nail on the head: “Today, scientists know that some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in dust. That’s why toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.”

And those chemicals are dangerous. Take chlorinated Tris, also known as TDCPP. The National Cancer Institute, among other organizations, has identified it as a cancer risk.

To sum up: The chemicals don’t really work, and they’re dangerous for children. That explains why legislators have been trying to ban them. But they’ve run into some powerful opposition from a noble-sounding group called Citizens for Fire Safety, which has lobbied heavily against any bans on flame retardants. It’s less noble-sounding when you look at who Citizens for Fire Safety really is: It’s totally a creature of the chemical companies that make flame retardants that don’t stop fires, but do endanger children.

A version of that struggle played out in New York last year. Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) sponsored legislation to ban two forms of Tris, both TDCPP, its most prevalent form — used in plastics, resins and polyurethane foams in car seats and other baby products — and a less important one, TCEP. The Assembly was ready, but the Senate declined to pass a bill including a ban on the more widespread chemical. So Sweeney reluctantly agreed to take that out of the bill. The promise was that the Senate would pass a bill in 2011 with only the less commonly used form, then add the more prevalent form of Tris in a bill in 2012. So, last year, the TCEP-only bill passed and was signed into law. It was the first time a state had banned the sale of children’s products containing a form of Tris.

This year, as planned, the Assembly passed a new bill, adding TDCPP to the ban, and sent it to the Senate. There, it languishes in committee, mostly dead. Unless the Senate has a sudden shame transplant, when the session ends later this month, it will be really, most sincerely dead.

The same is true of a broader Sweeney bill that the Assembly passed this year, to create a list of harmful chemicals used in children’s products, then to prohibit the sale in New York of products that contain them. That bill, like the updated Tris bill, sits in committee in the heavily lobbied Senate, awaiting a quiet death.

As they prepare to leave Albany and seek to retain their majority in the fall elections, it’s time for the Senate Republicans to think more about children’s health than the bottom line of a handful of chemical manufacturers.
 

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