Durbin Chairs Hearing on Safety and Effectiveness of Flame Retardant Chemicals

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, Dick Durbin (D-IL), chaired a hearing on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals today, following a Chicago Tribune four-part investigative report on flame retardant chemicals and furniture flammability standards. The hearing focused on whether those chemicals and flammability standards are adequately protecting consumers and the public.


“The reporting by the Chicago Tribune has shown that generations of Americans have been asked to tolerate exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in their furniture in the name of fire safety,” Durbin said. “But powerful industry groups have waged a deceptive marketing campaign that has created a false impression that these chemicals are making America a safer place, even when many are used in a way that has no practical impact on reducing flammability. Flame retardants must be both effective and safe for consumers.  Today’s hearing will ensure that science, not industry lobbyists, decides how we protect our families from fires.”


Testifying at today’s hearing were Inez Tenenbaum, Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC); James Jones, Assistant Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency; August Schaefer, Senior Vice President and Chief Safety Officer of Illinois-based Underwriters Laboratories; Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance; and Peter Van Dorpe, Chief of the Training Division of the Chicago Fire Department.


According to national fire loss estimates, upholstered furniture was the first item to ignite in an average of over 7,000 reported home fires per year.  These fires caused an estimated 500 deaths, 890 injuries, and $442 million in direct property damage each year. 


Once upholstered furniture is ignited, it burns extremely rapidly because of the fuel in the upholstery filling materials. Lit cigarettes, or other smoking materials, are the leading cause of upholstered furniture fires.  One out of every six such fires started by smoking materials resulted in death. 


The Chicago Tribune series explored the role of Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift the focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, in pushing furniture flammability standards. Chemical companies, which sought to preserve a lucrative market for their products, teamed with the tobacco industry and state fire marshals to steer policymakers away from developing fire-safe cigarette standards and toward rules requiring furniture flammability standards.  Durbin pressed CPSC on its rulemaking process and efforts to develop a safety standard that would require furniture makers to use materials that are resistant to smoldering cigarettes and other smoking materials that could be met without using flame retardant chemicals..


The Tribune articles also highlighted research showing that flame retardant chemicals escape from household products and settle in dust, causing infants and toddlers to have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.  American newborns have the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants than infants from any other country. 


Graco – one of the nation's largest children's product manufacturers – recently decided to ban the use of some toxic flame retardants in their products.  Graco announced that they will begin eliminating four of the most toxic flame retardant chemicals from their products, which include car seats and strollers.  The list of banned chemicals includes Firemaster 550, a chemical mixture that the current research and Tribune articles have shown to accumulate in humans and the environment. 


Copies of witness testimony are attached. Video from today’s hearing can be found at www.appropriations.senate.gov.