Legislation to ban Tris flame retardants hits snag

A law aims to put an end to a cycle of toxic products in the household.
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Tris chemical flame retardants were banned from children's pajamas years ago but they keep turning up in households and baby products.

A law aims to put an end to a cycle of toxic products in the household.

The push for a statewide ban on the toxic flame retardant Tris hit a legislative snag late last week. Tris is found widely in sofas, car seats and children’s products and has been linked to cancer, learning disorders and reduced fertility. Sen. Sharon Nelson proposed legislation that would have banned the substance. But Nelson's SB5181, the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, was killed by the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. The stumbling block, she said, appeared to be the language requiring companies find less toxic alternatives.

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“We understood that there was going to be an effort by the Republicans to strip that portion out, which essentially guts the protections we need in the future," explained Nelson. "If not, they’ll replace it with Firemaster 550 or some other carcinogen or hormone disruptor.”

A House version of the bill, HB1294, remains intact and is moving through committee. Eventually it will need to be make it though the Senate.

This is the third year the Toxic Free Legacy Coalition, whose 40 members include the Washington Toxics Coalition, Washington State Nursing Association and firefighter and faith groups, has introduced legislation to ban Tris. Five years ago Washington became the first state in the nation to outlaw a class of toxic flame retardants known as PBDE’s. After that, says Ivy Sager-Rosenthal with the Washington Toxics Coalition, the chemical industry and manufacturers turned to Tris, which is not only toxic but highly flammable. “We will just continue to play chemical ‘whack-a-mole’ until we can put in place a public process that ensures that any chemicals that are used as a replacement is safer than the ones we’re banning now,” says Sager-Rosenthal.

Firefighter and legislator, Rep. Kevin Van DeWegge, who sponsored the House bill, says oversight is what’s new in this year’s legislation. “[The state Department of] Ecology has to sign off on whatever manufacturers replace this with so we’re not continually seeing more harmful chemicals replacing harmful chemicals,” he says. Proponents of the Tris ban say it is critical if the market is ever going to get off what they call a ‘toxic treadmill’ of substituting one bad chemical for another.

The Association of Washington Business is among the groups lobbying against the ban. In an email, the AWB's Brandon Houskeeper said the organization will “continue to work with shareholders to identify a more appropriate way to look at chemicals that may be hazardous.”

The American Chemistry Council is also against the proposed ban. Tim Shestek of the council says when individual states develop their own regulatory system for products with national distribution its cause for concern: “From our standpoint a robust federal system that governs chemicals in commerce is the preferred approach. “ He says the chemistry council is working to get Congress to modernize the federal regulatory system so consumers can be assured a chemical is safe.  

Jessie Dye, with Earth Ministry, a member of the Toxic Free Legacy Coalition, says they’d love to see this happen. “But when we try to do it nationally they fight it tooth and nail, so we’ve learned the best way to do it is state by state, chemical by chemical. Then we make a change in one chemical, we make a better regulation and the world does not end. And, in fact, our consumers are safer.”

The Safe Chemicals Act was introduced nationally in 2005 to replace the Toxic Substance Controls Act of 1976. To date, it’s not been passed. Under existing law, the EPA has the burden of proof on the safety of a chemical rather than the manufacturer. In a letter to the agency last week, 23 senators called upon the EPA to increase the number of flame retardant chemicals it’s assessing for health risks. The senators point to dozens of flame retardants not scheduled for detailed scrutiny.  

Barbara Morrissey with the state Department of Health testified in favor of the ban on Tris. She says the EPA’s Design for the Environment Program, a voluntary partnership with industry to look at less toxic alternatives, is a first step. “Or even better, use different methods like barrier fabrics and designs to really make those products less likely to burst into flames.” Because flame retardants are not chemically bound to cushions and other products, over time they escape into indoor air and house dust.

The long-term future for flame retardants is uncertain. They were removed from children’s pajamas over cancer concerns a generation ago. Last year after the Chicago Tribune documented how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive campaign to promote the use of flame retardants, California announced it would overhaul a 1975 rule that led to their use in furniture upholstery and baby products. Earlier this month the state said it would scrap the rule by the end of the year. Seven other states have legislation pending to ban flame retardants; eight others are expected to introduce similar bans.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.