December 18, 2017
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How Maine can keep toxic chemicals out of its furniture, once and for all

By John Martell and Dana Dow, Special to the BDN
Kevin Casey | Chicago Tribune (MCT) | BDN
Kevin Casey | Chicago Tribune (MCT) | BDN
Vytenis Babrauskas, a fire safety science specialist, is a leading researcher on flame retardants in houshold furniture. He is pictured in 2012 at his home in Issaquah, Washington.

Eight years ago the Maine Legislature called for an end to the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in Maine furniture. The arguments against flame retardant chemicals, called PBDEs, were very simple: First, according to strong scientific data, these chemicals are extremely hazardous to human health. They are linked to cancer and other adverse health outcomes. And second, numerous studies have shown that these chemicals, packed by the pound into America’s furniture, were marginal at best in slowing down fires. Putting carcinogenic flame-retardants into upholstered furniture simply made no sense.

That is why the two of us — the president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine and a furniture business owner who has also served as a Republican state legislator — first joined together in 2007 to advocate for safer sofas and chairs. Each of us brought a strong personal connection to this issue.

As a firefighter, I’ve watched cancer become an everyday part of the job. Too many of my fellow public servants, both active and retired, are facing the hard struggle of dealing with this disease. Tragically, some cannot overcome the odds, and their lives are cut far too short. Since 2002, nearly 60 percent of the Line of Duty Deaths recorded by the International Association of Firefighters have been due to occupational cancer. This is unacceptable.

Compared to the general population, firefighters are at greater risk to develop at least 10 different types of cancer. Flame retardants, when burning in the upholstered furniture of the house fires we respond to, produce dioxins and furans, which are known carcinogens. We all know the risks of our job, and we accept that fact. But if we can reduce that risk by eliminating the use of toxic flame retardants, then we must do so.

As an owner of a small family-owned business selling furniture for more than 50 years, guaranteeing the safety of our products was essential. Back in 2007, I had my own body tested for toxic chemicals. Like all the others who volunteered to get tested, I had flame retardants in my blood, along with many other chemicals. I supported eliminating PBDE flame retardants in 2007 as an assurance for me, as a small-business owner, that I could buy and sell furniture without these harmful chemicals.

That year, the Maine Legislature listened, and we passed the first in a series of bipartisan bills prohibiting the sale of furniture with PBDE flame retardants. Although Maine has a small population, our actions effectively triggered a national shift in the furniture market. The remaining furniture brands that were still using these known carcinogens eliminated their use from their products.

Still, our work isn’t over: the PBDE flame retardants that Maine helped eliminate from the furniture market have been replaced with other toxic flame retardant chemicals.

That’s why Republican Sen. Linda Baker of Topsham is introducing a bill in 2016 to make sure that any furniture sold in Maine does not contain toxic flame retardants that endanger our health. Baker knows the personal effects of cancer. Her husband, Skip, a professional firefighter and chief of the Topsham Fire Department, died of cancer in 2001.

On the positive side, the focus of the furniture industry and its use of flame retardants has begun to change. Many of the major furniture brands spanning all price ranges have already eliminated flame retardants from their products. Ashley Furniture, Best Home Furnishings and La-Z-Boy, to name a few, have eliminated the use of these toxic chemicals. Some big box stores, such as Macy’s and Wal-Mart, have taken a no flame retardants pledge, which will drive all of their suppliers to make furniture without these chemicals.

Baker’s bill will provide the final push that a handful of remaining manufacturers need to get with the times and stop putting unnecessary toxic chemicals in their furniture. Maine’s leadership eight years ago triggered an end to one group of toxic flame retardants throughout the whole furniture industry. Now we’re ready to stand with Baker and ask all legislators to support Maine firefighters and Maine-owned businesses by finally ending the use of toxic flame retardants in household furniture.

John Martell is president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine. He is a retired Portland firefighter and paramedic. Dana Dow of Waldoboro served two terms in the Maine Senate and one term in the House. He is an owner of Dow Furniture in Waldoboro.

 


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