UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel and Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, March 2018

UCSF Contributes to the Push for Flame Retardant-Free Products

Image credit: One Workplace

As recently reported in UCSF News, common flame-retardant chemicals added to upholstered furniture, carpet padding, and other household foam-padded products continue to pose a threat to human health, especially for pregnant women and children. UC San Francisco (UCSF) has continuously advocated for policies and procurement guidelines that minimize exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, as these chemicals contain chlorine or bromine and have been associated with health concerns such as lower IQ, reduced fertility and thyroid hormone disruption.

A UCSF research study, conducted by scientists and physicians with the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) and published in August 2017, found that prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) lowers intelligence levels in children. This study was well-recognized, including being featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Housed in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences in the UCSF School of Medicine, PRHE has been working at the intersection of science, medicine, policy and community since it was founded in 2007 to conduct reproductive health research and translate the science into improved public policy and enhanced clinical care.

Findings from a related PRHE study showed that although most PBDEs were banned or phased out beginning in 2003, pregnant women continue to demonstrate PBDE exposure years later. Because flame retardant chemicals are just mixed into the products and not actually bonded to them, they are released into the environment where they can be ingested and absorbed—and persist into the future.
Alternate flame-retardant chemicals, such as organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs), are still being used in furniture and baby products, although they are also known to be toxic and have harmful impacts. One example is the way they threaten reproductive health. Findings from a Harvard Chan School of Public Health study published in August 2017 show a link between exposure to PFRs and lower reproductive success in women undergoing fertility treatments, “adding to the body of evidence indicating a need to reduce the use of these flame retardants.”

UCSF Research Informs San Francisco Ban on Flame Retardants

For San Francisco County and City residents a reduction in exposure to these flame retardants is on the way, due in part to the research from UCSF’s PRHE on how they impact pregnant women and children. This past October UCSF continued to show up as a “leader in science-based policy solutions” as it presented scientific information to San Francisco policy makers considering an ordinance proposed by Supervisor Mark Farrell to ban the sale of residential upholstered furniture and certain foam-padded children’s products containing flame retardants in the city and county.

Dr. Veena Singla, Ph.D., Associate Director, Science & Policy at PRHE, stressed, “UCSF has a history of research on the impacts of flame retardants, which has informed public policy. PRHE engages with clinicians and scientists and asks them to communicate their science to decision makers and policy makers and to inform science-based and evidence-based policies.”

At the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing on October 11, 2017, Dr. Singla and Dr. Marya Zlatnik, UCSF Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, gave compelling testimony on PRHE’s research showing that diverse pregnant women seeking care in San Francisco have the highest exposure to flame retardant chemicals of pregnant women worldwide. Dr. Singla’s testimony also described the health hazards of flame retardants and how such chemicals move from products into people.

Additionally, many UCSF scientists and clinicians contributed formal comments for the supervisors, providing important scientific and technical information on the impacts of flame retardant chemicals. One particularly powerful finding included was that young children are disproportionately impacted by exposure to these chemicals, noting that “toddlers have 3-15 times higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies compared to their moms.”

The hearing was a success; the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance on October 24. As of January 2019, when the ban takes effect, stores in the City and County of San Francisco will not be able to sell residential upholstered furniture and certain foam-padded children’s products containing flame retardants. All businesses that sell upholstered furniture or children’s products covered by the ordinance must comply. For the average consumer, this means that after Jan 1, 2019 they can walk into any store in San Francisco and buy flame-retardant free products.

Federal Agency Steps Forward for Consumers

The fight to reduce exposure to flame retardants is not just happening at the local level. UCSF’s PRHE has also taken its policy work to the national level. In September 2017 Dr. Singla testified to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about the evidence showing that flame retardants move from products into the air and dust of homes, resulting in human exposures to the chemicals. The CPSC is the agency charged with “protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with the use of the thousands of types of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction.”

Just before the ordinance was passed in San Francisco, the CPSC issued a guidance document on an entire class of flame retardant chemicals—organohalogens—in the Federal Register, as reported in an article byCNN. The guidance document recommends that manufacturers not add these chemicals to their products and warns consumers not to buy products that contain them. Products addressed by the guidance include upholstered furniture, mattresses, electronic device cases, and children’s products.

This intermediary step is an attempt by the CPSC to protect consumers while it works to push through a formal ban on these chemicals. CNN quoted Commissioner Robert Adler as saying, “Every (chemical) that we’ve done careful and exhaustive study of has proven to be toxic—and hazardously toxic—to consumers.”

UCSF’s PRHE has come to a similar conclusion about the need to protect consumers from toxic flame retardants. “The PHRE would like to see manufacturers move away from the use of flame retardants; if there are any places where these flame retardants are necessary, manufacturers should really be looking for safer alternatives, because we’ve seen a lot of the regrettable substitutions where one toxic flame retardant is used to replace another,” stressed Dr. Singla.

Even still, as the CNN article reports, the Commission could face legal and political challenges to their proposed ban, and it will be a long process (potentially taking years) for binding regulations to be enacted.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Others

  • Advocate: Send a message to the CPSC. Address your message to Acting CPSC Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle and ask for the CPSC to finalize the ban of organohalogen flame retardants in furniture, children’s products, mattresses, and electronic cases.
  • Use One Workplace for UCSF Furniture Purchasing: The UCSF community can purchase common office items from One Workplace through BearBuy. One Workplace is under contract with UCSF to procure discounts from manufacturers that have committed to produce Red List-free products, the worst-in-class materials prevalent in the building industry, including flame retardants. They feature Steelcase and other high-quality furnishings at a group discount to UCSF. See the full story on how the Red List is being incorporated into UCSF’s new buildings here.
  • Ask for Flame-Retardant Free for Home Purchases: When shopping for new home furnishings, be sure to ask for flame-retardant free choices. Avoid crib mattresses, nap mats, and other upholstered products with flame retardants. Select foam products labeled as “flame-retardant free.” If you are in the market for a new couch, look for the new flame-retardant free label to avoid exposure to flame retardants.
  • Talk About It: Learn more and spread the word about the dangers of flame retardants. Check out Green Science Policy Institute’s webpage that is full of useful information on the topic. If you work with children, explore the new Pediatric Environmental Health Web Tool Kit.