UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, June 2014

New Mission Bay Hospitals Minimizes Flame Retardants in Furniture

SignLast month UCSF screened the documentary Toxic Hot Seat, a movie that tells the story of a growing tide of activists, journalists and citizen groups who are bringing an end to the era of manipulation and misinformation about hidden toxic chemicals.  It shows the struggle to remove toxic flame retardant chemicals from our couches, environment and bodies. These chemicals are linked to lower IQ in children, thyroid disease, infertility, cancer and other rising rates of health problems.  Recently highlighted in SF Gate, a new study by UC Berkeley found that hazardous flame retardants are ubiquitous in preschools.  The article explains that flame retardant chemicals “which have been linked to hormone disruption and lowered IQs in children, were found in 100 percent of the dust samples collected.”  If you missed the film, the dvd is at the Parnassus Kalmanovitz Library for borrowing.

You can check out a short clip below:

Dr. Stanton Glantz, a world renowned anti-tobacco warrior,  and Dr. Rob Goldsby, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at UCSF, provided opening remarks at the screening.  Two San Francisco firemen, Dan Dunnigan and Tony Stefani, whose health were both affected by flame retardants, were present to support the film.  During the Q&A after the film, a faculty member asked if flame retardants were eliminated in the new Mission Bay Hospitals.

California recently updated its furniture flammability standard, eliminating the need for furniture manufacturers to use flame retardant chemicals to meet the state’s fire safety requirements.  According to Judy Levin, Pollution Prevention Co-Director at the Center for Environmental Health, California’s old flammability standard—Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117)—had become the market standard across the country, leading to the wholesale use of flame retardants throughout the furnishings sector, most notably in the foam core of upholstered furniture.  California’s new regulation (TB 117-2013) addresses the outer fabric and can be met without the use of flame retardant chemicals. The new standard also makes explicit that public occupancy buildings, including hospitals, that are fully equipped with an automated sprinkler system can purchase furniture that meets TB 117-2013 rather than the more costly TB 133.

“We are happy to report that our project (Mission Bay Hospitals), which includes fully sprinklered buildings, was not required to comply with TB 133.  The project does meet TB 117 requirements,” explained Mary Phillips, UCSF Architect, Interior Design & Standards at the UCSF Medical Center, Office of Design & Construction.

FireLevin explains that purchasing TB 117-2013 compliant furniture will benefit human and environmental health and likely cut costs for health care institutions for the following reasons:

*  Flame retardants can escape from products and find their way into dust and ultimately our bodies.

*  Studies show that children—who spend much of their time on the floor coming into contact with dust and putting their fingers into their mouths—have three times higher levels of flame retardant chemicals than their parents. 

*  Flame retardant chemicals are associated with neurodevelopmental problems, reproductive difficulties, hormone disruption, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

*  Many flame retardants have been found to be persistent, bioaccumulative and/or toxic.

*  TB 117-2013 can be met through the use of smolder-resistant fabrics that do not need to be chemically treated, while manufacturers often use flame retardants in the foam, fabric and/or barrier materials to meet TB 133.

Toxics Reduction Workgroup

Flame retardants are part of the concern of the UCSF Toxics Reduction Workgroup.  The updated UCSF Sustainability Action Plan identifies strategies with specific interest for toxics reduction in the following areas: environmentally preferred purchasing, cleaning agents, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, laboratories, building materials, furniture, textiles, electronics, combustion/transportation, water contamination, and communication programs for patients/staff. 

Learn More

The Center for Environmental Health has resources of flame retardant-free products.

The Green Science Policy Institute recently updated its fact sheet “Parent’s Guide to Flame Retardants” with tips on how to reduce your family’s exposure to flame retardants.  The flyer states, “Americans have some of the highest measured levels in the world of flame retardants in their blood. Toddlers have 3 to 4 times the flame retardants in their bodies when compared with their moms”.  It is also offering the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange, a resource to help you swap your older sofa foam for new foam free of flame retardants.

Also, furniture without flame retardants is becoming increasingly available. If you are shopping for new furniture, look for a TB117-2013 tag, and verify with the retailer that products do not contain flame retardants.  Note that the new standard does NOT ban the use of flame retardants. Here is a list of companies that state they sell flame retardant free furniture.

Story by Green Impact, Bringing Sustainability Alive.