Talk about unintended consequences: A 1975 law that was designed to keep Californians safe from furniture fires is exposing us to potentially dangerous levels of toxic chemicals.
One study by UC Berkeley and Duke researchers released this week adds to the growing body of evidence that toxic or untested fire retardants have become commonplace in American couches - most likely a response to a California law that requires furniture foam to endure an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. It's the only such law in the nation, but the size of the state's market - and the cost and complication of altering a product for a single state - effectively make it a national standard.
Another study found significant amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals in 13 of the 16 Northern California homes it tested. The substances identified in the two studies have been linked to cancer, DNA changes, lowered IQ, hormone disruption, decreased fertility and hyperactivity.
Worse yet, even the most diligent consumers might not be able to determine which chemicals are in the furniture they buy, and at what level. That information generally is kept sealed as a trade secret.
These studies should add a sense of urgency to Gov. Jerry Brown's order for a revision of the 37-year-old standard. For years, the California Legislature had wrestled with a bill to outlaw certain fire retardants of concern, but the chemical industry always prevailed, even though some firefighters were among the most vigorous advocates of change. Their concern: The benefits of flame-resistant foam were more than offset by the elevated hazards of toxic smoke from a house fire.
A revision of the 1975 regulation, expected to take effect next year, could not come soon enough. It must include not only new restrictions on toxic chemicals, but clear disclosure for consumers.