Gov. Jerry Brown is about to repent for a sin he didn't know he committed in 1975.
Ten months after Brown took office the first time, his administration produced a little-noticed regulation requiring that furniture sold in California comply with the strictest fire safety standard in the nation.
Befitting its turgid language, the regulation came to be known as Technical Bulletin 117. Though it was supposed to save lives, another story has emerged since 1975. Technical Bulletin 117 has resulted in the addition of countless tons of toxic chemicals to couch cushions, carpet pads and, alas, our bodies.
In June, Brown started undoing Technical Bulletin 117, telling the obscure arm of the state that is its keeper -- the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation -- to dramatically alter it.
Brown used the word "toxic" seven times in a 350-word news release announcing the decision. For emphasis, he noted that "California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries."
California has led the nation on many environmental issues. In this instance, however, the state led the nation into a dark hole, and filled it with substances linked to cancer and neurological dysfunction. Flame retardants will be part of the ecosystem for decades.
The family of flame retardants in question goes by the complicated name polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE. If your couch has 20 pounds of cushion, you can figure it contains about a pound of PBDE. The problem is that PBDE doesn't stay put.
A study by UC San Francisco showed dust in homes in the towns of Bolinas and Richmond had 200 times more brominated flame retardants than did European homes. Californians walk around with two to 10 times more of this stuff in their bodies than people in other parts of the country, say other studies.
A study published earlier this month found that BDE-49, a flame retardant component, accumulates in human blood, fat and breast milk.
The "chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power," wrote UC Davis in summarizing the study. It added that the findings "bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders."
Like many questions of health and the environment, the use of flame retardants has come down to lobbying.
Chemical companies won almost all their battles, until May when the Chicago Tribune published a blockbuster series questioning the science and lobbying surrounding flame retardants. Aides to Brown cite that series as one reason he acted.
Much of the lobbying took place in Sacramento, starting in 2007 with Californians for Fire Safety, funded by three leading flame retardant manufacturers, Albemarle Corp. of Virginia, Chemtura of Pennsylvania and ICL Industrial Products of Israel. Californians for Fire Safety, also known as the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, burned through $6.66 million to kill two bills that would have ended Technical Bulletin 117 and restricted fire retardants.
In 2008, Californians for Fire Safety was renamed Citizens for Fire Safety. Funded by the same companies, it spent $2.6 million lobbying to kill two bills. It also went national.
From 2007 to 2012, Citizens for Fire Safety defeated no fewer than 58 bills in 21 states. Only two bills passed, one in Maine and one in Washington state. Besides killing bills, the companies have spent no less than $285,000 on California campaigns since 2007, and tried to derail the career of Sen. Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat who has crusaded against flame retardants. They contributed $5,000 to a $100,000 independent campaign attacking Leno as he ran for a Senate seat in 2008. Though he won, he never managed to get his bills through the Legislature.
Brown, meanwhile, took office and adopted the issue. Tonya Blood, his appointee heading the Bureau of Home Furnishings, is expected to issue a revised Technical Bulletin 117 in February. Presumably the state no longer will require brominated flame retardants for furniture.
The industry will fight any change.
Debbie Raphael, head of the California Department of Toxic Substances, doesn't equivocate: "This is a sentinel chemical that is indicative of so much that is wrong with the way chemicals are regulated in consumer products." Raphael wants to make sure the government avoids similar mistakes in the future. The Department of Toxic Substance Control plans to issue rules governing the so-called green chemistry program.
The goal will be to analyze chemicals to determine whether benefits are worth the risk they pose. Initially, 1,200 chemicals will be reviewed. As Brown makes amends for a decision by the first Brown administration, flame retardants will be high on the list.
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THE SACRAMENTO BEE