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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So much of history, so much of news is made of unintended consequences, like the story we'll talk about next.

In the 1970s, legislators in California enacted a law that they thought would help to save lies. That law required flame retardants to be included inside furniture. It eventually became a de facto standard across America. But now, some scientists and lawmakers are starting to think this policy designed to make us safer may actually have the opposite effect.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Arlene Blum pulls up a cushion from a green sofa inside a furniture store in Berkeley, California.

ARLENE BLUM: Good in my living room. Let's just see.

STANDEN: Blum is a chemist and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, a non-profit group in Berkeley. She reads from a small white tag, sewn into the fabric.

BLUM: This article meets the flammability requirements of the California Bureau of Home Furnishing's technical bulletin 117.

STANDEN: 117 - TB 117, as it's called, is a California law passed in 1975. It says that the foam inside upholstered furniture must be able to resist a flame, like from a cigarette lighter or a candle. There's really only one way to do this - with chemicals. Not trace amounts. You have to put as many as two pounds of flame retardant chemicals into the foam of each sofa. And this is not just in California. Big furniture makers don't want to make different products for different states. So...

BLUM: They do it for all 50 states and Canada.

STANDEN: According to the American Home Furnishings Alliance, over 80 percent of furniture sold in the U.S. contains foam treated with flame retardant chemicals.

The problem, say Blum and others, is that the chemicals don't just stay inside the sofas. They turn up in household dust and in human blood and breast milk. Some of these chemicals cause cancer in lab animals. Studies suggests connections between certain chemicals and abnormal brain development in humans.

Over the years, the most worrisome chemicals have been phased out, but they're still present in older furniture. Meanwhile, new chemicals come online and scientists scramble to test them. For these reasons, state lawmakers have tried five times to change this law.

STATE SEN. MARK LENO: It's enormously frustrating.

STANDEN: California State Senator Mark Leno's recent bill had the support of furniture makers, firefighter groups, doctors. All of them wanted the chemicals out of furniture. But the bill died in committee. Every lawmaker who voted against it had received campaign contributions from the chemical industry. Leno says it's the same every time one of these bills comes up. He goes from office to office, trying to drum up support from fellow lawmakers, and...

LENO: In the waiting room of the office I'm leaving is a lobbyist for the chemical industry. So they'll have the last word.

DR. DAVID HEIMBACH: I took care of a 7-week-old baby from Alaska.

STANDEN: David Heimbach is a burn doctor in Seattle. And he was a star witness hired by the chemical industry to testify in front of California lawmakers last year.

HEIMBACH: Mom put a candle in the crib. Candle fell over. Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital.

STANDEN: Except there was no 7-week old burn victim that Heimbach cared for, and no candle fire. After a Chicago Tribune investigation, Heimbach admitted he made up the story.

And that gets us to what's really the key question here: Do flame retardants actually prevent fires?

DONALD LUCAS: What we found is the addition of the fire retardants really didn't reduce the fires significantly, or at least we couldn't tell that it reduced it at all.

STANDEN: Donald Lucas is a flammability scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He says the reason flame retardants don't stop fires is because fires don't start inside the sofa. They start on the surface of the sofa, on the fabric. And the law says nothing about the fabric, just the foam.

LUCAS: Usually once the fire gets to the foam, the sofa's going to burn. And it'll probably burn just as well with the fire retardant as without the fire retardant.

STANDEN: Lucas points out that today, there are better ways to make furniture fire resistant - special fabrics, or fire barriers between the fabric and the foam. After four decades of the existing law, California regulators say they're looking into it.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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