San Francisco Moves to Protect Children from Flame Retardant Chemicals

San Francisco could soon become the first U.S. city to prohibit chemical flame retardants in all new upholstered furniture and children’s products sold in the city, including online sales.

A proposed ordinance under consideration by the Board of Supervisors would ban added flame retardants from kids’ products including play and nap mats, nursing pads, changing pads, infant seats, highchair pads and strollers. The proposal, expected to come up for a vote Oct. 17, would also require flame retardant-free foam to be used when furniture is reupholstered.

Flame retardants have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and developmental problems in kids. Scientists have gathered reams of evidence that these chemicals migrate out of furniture foam and end up in people’s bodies. Biomonitoring studies have found flame retardants in the bodies of Americans nationwide, and children often have higher levels than adults.

Flame retardants have been intentionally added to foam products for more than 40 years. In 2013, California concluded that adding flame retardants to furniture was not actually making products safer, resulting in enacting a major overhaul of the state’s fire retardant rules.

Children especially at risk

During critical stages of development, children are especially vulnerable to the health hazards of flame retardants. In 2013, a study by University of California at Berkeley researchers showed that prenatal and childhood exposures to one class of flame retardants, bromine-based chemicals known as PDBEs, are linked to attention, coordination and learning problems. A 2017 study led by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that exposure to PBDEs was associated with lowered IQ in children.

EWG researchers have found high levels of PBDEs and other flame retardants in utero, in mothers’ milk, and in 3-to-5 year olds’ bodies. In a 2008 study of 20 families in 11 states, we found that children’s PBDE levels were three times higher than those of their mothers.

In 2016, a joint study by EWG and Duke University researchers demonstrated that California children had average levels of a flame retardant in their bodies that were 15 times higher than those of their mothers, as well as higher than those of children in New Jersey.

Consumers turning to flame retardant-free products

Concerned about health effects, consumers are causing a market shift away from added flame retardants. Although many major manufactures have phased out the use of flame retardants in their products, recent monitoring by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that harmful bromine- and chlorine-containing flame retardants are still found in more than one-fifth of children’s products.

The San Francisco Department of Environment has been working with retailers in the city to educate them on the new law and has been encouraging sales of flame-retardant free furniture. Over 50 retailers in the city currently sell flame retardant-free furniture.

In July, Maine passed a similar law banning the sale of furniture containing flame retardants beginning in 2019. San Francisco’s ordinance would extend this ban by including a broad range of children’s products that contain foam ingredients, such as bassinets, booster seats, changing pads, floor play mats and nap mats, nursing pads and pillows, and many other products. Rhode Island recently passed a ban on organohalogen flame retardants in bedding and furniture that will also take effect in 2019.

EWG continues to push for strong federal action action on flame retardants. EWG has called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to get flame retardants out of products sold in stores nationwide.

If you live in places where state and local governments have not yet taken action to protect citizens from flame retardants, check out this EWG infographic to learn more about how to avoid these chemicals in consumer products. 

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