Change is underway in California. I'm talking about the righting of a wrong written into state law in 1975 that has cost millions and affecting millions of people. What is this regulation? The obscure-sounding Technical Bulletin 117 on flammability standards. The target? Your couch, your home, and your body.
Like so many laws, TB117, as it's known, started out with the best intention: protecting Californians from house fires. In the past, we thought that the severity of fires could be lowered with a new product – flame-retardant chemicals. TB117 ensured that flame-retardants would be embedded in the foam of couches, seat cushions and child car seatstodelay the moment these materials caught fire. Sounds good, right?
Well, not really.
It turns out that fire-resistant fabric is a better method of preventing fires: it blocks flame growth early in the fire's life without adding substantial cost. Flame-retardants are expensive, and TB117 forces manufacturers selling furniture in California to use them, increasing the cost for consumers countrywide, as no company will make a separate line of furniture just for California.
Worse, these flame-retardants don't stay put in the foam; they filter out into our dust, clothes and skin, even showing up in our blood and breast milk. Worse yet, they are persistent, meaning that they stay in our bodies and in the environment for decades, and are linked to human health effects like cancer, learning disorders and infertility.
Really not good.
As if this wasn't bad enough, when there is a fire, flame-retardants turn into noxious fumes that are then breathed in by firefighters. Their increased risk of cancer is partially due to these exposures.
Why am I telling you about this now? Because change is on the horizon.
Governor Jerry Brown is considering an update to TB117 that would improve fire safety by allowing the use of fire-resistant fabrics and eliminating the requirement for flame-retardants. This could mean that in the near future, we may be able to have our cake and eat it too and finally enjoy couches as safe as they are comfortable without being exposed to toxic chemicals.
With a Perspective, I'm Shorey Myers.
Shorey Myers is a student of public health at UC, Berkeley.