When I was a little girl I had a blanky. It really it was a pillow that was likely as old as I was. It was my favorite thing — for more years than I care to admit — in the world. Like most little kids I needed something to soothe and comfort me on those days where I felt particularly vulnerable. I don’t know whatever became of that pillow. And when I see children today, clenched to their very own pillow or blanky, I smile in fond memory of my childhood. But shortly after that, my smile fades as I’m reminded that the child in front of me, while snuggled up to her most prized possession, may be unknowingly exposing herself to dangerous, toxic chemicals that could potentially harm her little health.
That doesn’t seem fair to me. Why would companies manufacture products — especially those made for children — that could harm them? I found out that most of these chemicals are so-called flame retardants, designed to “afford” you the precious seconds you’ll need to save yourself and your love ones from a disastrous fire. Safety measures to prevent fires sound like a great thing, but are harmful chemicals really necessary to provide this kind of protection? It appears as though I’m not the only one asking this question. Recently a spotlight has been shined on this issue due an investigative series by the Chicago Tribune and politicians have been called to the table to address it.
Historically, regulatory decisions regarding flammability standards have been made without consideration of the health and environmental impacts of chemicals most likely to be used to meet the standards. For decades the flammability standard for polyurethane foam, TB 117, has been California’s flammability standard. The standard doesn’t mandate the use of chemicals, but the cheapest way to meet the standard has been to add pounds of flame retardant chemicals to furniture foam. In the early 1970s California Legislature enacted this flammability standard. According to the furniture industry, all furniture sold in California and about 80% of furniture sold in the U.S. outside California and in Canada meets TB117. We are also not just talking about furniture here. Many children’s products such as changing pads and car seats have been found to contain these chemicals.
Have fire deaths gone down since as a result of this standard you ask? There is no proof to that assertion which is made by the chemical industry. Fire data is hard to come by but … There has been a 60% decrease in fire deaths in the United States since 1980 which parallels to the decrease per capita of cigarette consumption; increased enforcement of improved building, fire, and electrical codes; and the increased use of smoke detectors and sprinklers. So it seems to me that these chemicals are not saving lives. In fact, they are doing the opposite. According to independent studies flame retardants can lead to birth defects, cause hormone disruptions, and other serious health problems. Just ask Tony Stephani, retired San Francisco firefighter, founder of San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, who recently told lawmakers about the high incidence of breast cancer and other cancers among the city’s firefighters. And for years my colleague, Dr. Sarah Janssen, has worked to address regulation and prove that these chemicals are not only ineffective, but harmful.
So after 20 plus years of buying products that have insidiously endangered our families there is finally hope. Last month Sen. Barbara Boxer called a hearing on much needed legislation to tighten regulations on chemicals. And for the first time, reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (the Safe Chemicals Act) were voted on and passed in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is only first step, but a very important one, in ensuring that this bill soon becomes law.
Sometimes I long for the innocence of my childhood and those days when I kept my raggedy pillow close. It would be nice to buy a new throw pillow or a present for my friend who’s expecting, without the worry that I am potentially bringing an item into my or her home that could negatively impact our health down the road. I consider myself somewhat of a risktaker, but not to that degree. My options are severely limited when it comes to affording ‘eco friendly’ products and clearly we can’t trust companies to tell us about their use of unsafe chemicals. We must continue to speak out and tell our senators to pass this important bill. After all…don’t all little girls deserve a safe, chemical free blanky to hold?