Flame retardant bill still sparks legislative debate

Firefighters, nurses and physicians line up for a ban on some chemicals. But opponents question whether there are better alternatives.
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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.

Firefighters, nurses and physicians line up for a ban on some chemicals. But opponents question whether there are better alternatives.

Two versions of a bill to ban toxic chemicals from children's items are in play in the Washington Senate. And Washington's business lobbyists aren't happy with either one.

The Senate's Energy and Environment Committee held a public hearing Tuesday on a House bill and a proposed substitute for it. Both address the chemicals TCEP and TDCPP, which are some of the Tris flame retardants found upholstered furniture and children's products such as baby carriers, changing pads and car seats.

TCEP and TDCPP also give off toxic fumes when burned.

In 2008, the Legislature passed a law to ban certain chemicals from children's products. That law also required the Washington Department of Ecology to create a list of  "chemicals of high concern to children" for health reasons in 2011 to be tracked in children's products. Sixty-six chemicals ended up on that list, including TCEP.

On March 6, the Washington House passed a bill 53-44 — mostly Democrats for and mostly Republicans against — to add TDCPP to the list of chemicals of high concern to children. That bill also would ban the sales and distribution of children's items and upholstered furniture containing more than 100 parts per million of TCEP and TDCPP in Washington starting on July 1, 2015. Meanwhile, the bill would ban the other 65 chemicals of high concern to children for upholstered furniture and children's products — with exceptions granted if no safer alternatives can be found.

A similar bill by Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Seattle, died last month in the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, has proposed a substitute version of the House bill, which would keep the ban on TCEP and TDCPP in children's items, but would eliminate the proposed ban of TCEP and TDCPP in upholstered furniture and the proposed ban on the chemicals of high  concern to children.

"Only banning two ... chemicals does not prevent companies from using something just as bad or worse,'" testified Rep. Kevin Van Wege, D-Sequim and author of the House bill.

Firefighters organizations, the state ecology and health departments, the Washington Toxics Coalition, the Washington Conservation Voters, the Washington State Nurses Association, the state's pediatricians association, Earth Ministry and the League of Women Voters testified in favor of Van De Wege's House bill.

Joe Simpson of the Washington State Council of Firefighters and Mike Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Fire Chiefs, said firefighters  — who already have higher-than-normal risks of getting cancer — face the toxic fumes from burning furniture and children's items. "We have enough exposure in our workplace. ... We don't need more toxic soup," Simpson said.

Both wanted to keep the proposed ban on chemicals of high concern to children, arguing that not having that ban would force firefighters and others to return to the Legislature annually to seek specific bans on individual toxic chemicals.

"This is a public health crisis, and we must get off the toxic treadmill," said Sophia Aragon, representing the Washington State Nurses Association.

The Association of Washington Business and the Washington Retail Association did not like either version of the bill, although the AWB's Brandon Houskeeper said his association prefers Ericksen's new version to the House version.

Houskeeper and the retail association's Mark Johnson said their groups do not want to harm their costumers, but argued that a national law is preferable to a patchwork of different laws in different states. The House bill "gives the Department of Ecology broad authority to ban chemicals without coming back to the Legislature," said Houskeeper, arguing for an expanded legislative process on banning chemicals. Houskeeper said there are examples of bans of chemicals being put on hold until safer alternatives are found. "Certainly, that is not the approach we see here today," he said.

Committee member Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, interjected: "I'm quite frankly shocked by the line you've taken."

Another committee member, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, added: "My concern is we're talking about the health of children. I can't wait."

Ericksen quizzed supporters of the House bill about whether they knew of any safer alternative flame retardant treatments to replace TCEP, TDCPP and the chemicals of high concern to children. All acknowledged that they did not know of any. Ericksen said: "People keep saying to go to less toxic alternatives. But no one will tell me what it is."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8