Fire Politics: We Must Fight the Invisible Assassins

Kevin O’Connor addresses legislation related to flame retardants and the importance of firefighters understanding the dangers posed by the toxins within.

Firefighters take calculated risks to protect the citizens we serve every single day. Our training, experience and courage allow us to evaluate the environment and successfully fight fires. But there’s an uncertainty plaguing America’s Bravest—the residual damage to our health caused by the array of toxins and carcinogens emitted during the course of a fire.

Each year, the IAFF gathers in Colorado Springs, CO, to honor our fallen. The majority of names, 56 percent since 2002, added to our Wall of Honor are firefighters who succumbed to occupationally induced cancers. The entire fire service must unite to fight against these invisible assassins.

Where it started

In 1975—through guile, effective advocacy and a healthy dose of chicanery—a coalition of the tobacco lobby, chemical industry and their allies (including some in the fire service) persuaded the state of California to adopt an “open flame” test standard for the flammability of furniture.

To comply with the standard, manufacturers put literally pounds of potentially cancer-causing flame retardants into their furniture. And now, 85 percent of all sofas contain approximately 2 pounds of flame retardants. Producers make more than 3.4 billion pounds of flame retardants each year. Beyond furniture, flame retardants abound in other household, construction, transportation and insulation goods. When chemical flame retardants burn, they convert into dioxins and furans, which can penetrate a firefighter’s PPE and be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

The good news: Viable alternatives exist. Through the use of barrier technology and safer alternatives, products can meet reasonable burn standards without the introduction of hazardous flame retardants.

Pushing for change

From coast to coast, firefighters are fighting back. Comprehensive legislation banning certain flame retardants and their usage has been passed in Washington, Maine, Oregon and Vermont. Eight other states have passed more limited measures, with proposals pending in other legislatures. These statutes have passed in both red and blue states with overwhelming bi-partisan support.

California recently replaced its “open flame” test with a smoldering standard, allowing manufacturers to employ other mechanisms to make furniture fire-safe and less hazardous to responders. The Golden State also implemented a labeling requirement so consumers are alerted if furniture contains chemical flame retardants.

Chemical manufacturers still have plenty of fight, though. This is a multi-billion-dollar business. In each of the states, firefighters and their allies faced stiff, sometimes brutal, opposition by lobbyists and others intent on protecting their profit margins.

Taking the fight to D.C.

Congress is poised to act on revisions to the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), which provides the EPA with authority to regulate over 30,000 chemicals. Regrettably, as a result of court rulings, bureaucracy and inertia, the TSCA is without teeth.

Competing proposals are being debated in both chambers. Everyone agrees that reform must occur. But, as with any legislative proposal, the devil is in the details. The bottom line is that firefighter safety must be addressed in the revisions. Provisions must be included to ensure that in order to be declared “safe,” a chemical (flame retardant) must be tested under fire conditions and evaluated as to its impact on an exposed population group—firefighters. If a chemical is injurious to the health of firefighters, it must be banned, period. A re-authorized TSCA must also allow states to act independently to regulate chemicals that have not been thoroughly evaluated and deemed safe by the EPA. We cannot allow a weak federal law to preempt strong measures at the state level.

Last year, New York Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sponsored the bill, “The Children and Firefighter Protection Act,” which would ban a specific list of flame retardants from being used in children’s products and upholstered furniture. The proposal puts the industry on notice that these controversial chemicals are dangerous and have no place in our households. Schumer plans to reintroduce the bill this Congress. All firefighters should encourage our members of Congress to co-sponsor this proposal.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the NFPA are both evaluating “open flame” testing processes. While reasonable people may disagree on testing methodologies, concerned firefighters should be vigilant that standards that perpetuate the continued use of flame retardants are not promulgated.

Bottom line

We need to make it clear to the chemical industry that the gravy train is over. Using cheap, potentially carcinogenic flame retardants is not acceptable to the fire service, general public or elected officials.

Ban these chemicals because firefighters’ lives matter.