Feature Stories


Ana Toepel, Green Impact, February 2019


A Valentine’s Present for SF and the Planet: Flame Retardants Phased Out

Last spring we shared the great news that San Francisco passed a ban on the sale of upholstered furniture, reupholstered furniture, and juvenile products (those designed for residential use by infants and children under 12 years of age) containing toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals are classified as halogenated fire retardants, which contain chlorine and bromine. They are released into the air, where they settle into dust that can be ingested through hand-to-mouth contact. And, since these chemicals are absorbed and stored in fatty tissue, they travel and persist in the environment; they have been found almost everywhere—including fish, meat and dairy products, breast milk, and people’s blood around the globe.

According to NRDC, along with having dubious merit, these chemicals have been connected to cancer and hyperactivity. The Green Science Policy Institute links them to reproductive, developmental, and neurological health effects. Studies have even shown that exposure to these chemicals by pregnant women can result in lower intelligence levels in their children.

On January 1, the new San Francisco ordinance went into effect. Bay Area consumers can now rest assured that the next couch, baby stroller, or booster seat that they purchase in the City of San Francisco is flame retardant-free. Because of the harmful effects of flame retardant chemicals, the attempt to keep them out of people’s homes and the environment is truly a show of love, just in time for Valentine’s Day. What a great gift for San Francisco—and the planet too!

Beginning in 2020, this won’t be limited to San Francisco, since Governor Brown signed a bill into law last September that will prohibit the sale of products with flame retardants statewide (which will include mattresses in addition to the products covered by San Francisco’s ban). A previously signed bill that requires manufacturers to disclose whether or not their upholstered furniture contains flame retardant chemicals has brought their use down considerably; yet, a significant minority of these products still contains them.

UCSF Rejects “Red List” Chemicals for Furnishings
The extensive and damaging impacts of flame retardant chemicals has put them on the Living Building Challenge’s Red List; in this case, red does not signify love, but the worst-in-class chemicals—those of high concern for the health of both humans and the environment. In addition to halogenated flame retardants, the list includes other well-known toxic materials such as asbestos, lead, BPA (Bisphenol A), mercury, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons).

Last year UCSF committed to following the Red List guidelines and is avoiding these chemicals in its furniture purchases for nine buildings, ensuring a much healthier indoor environment for building users. Through its partnership with One Workplace, UCSF is eliminating Red List chemicals in its furniture, with a Tier 2 exception for non-urea formaldehyde and PVC-wrapped electrical wire in sit/stand desks. The One Workplace program gives the UCSF community access to a wide range of red list-free furniture options and discounts for purchasing these products.

Beyond SF—California Takes Steps Toward Flame Retardant-Free Buildings

January also saw another win for the work to ban these chemicals in California: the California State Building Commission ruled that building codes can be updated to allow the use of polystyrene (foam plastic) building insulation without flame retardants below a concrete slab. Manufacturers typically add flame retardant chemicals to polystyrene insulation to meet flammability standards, though research by fire science experts has showed there is no fire safety benefit when used below-grade or behind thermal barriers.

This ruling is considered a victory by Berkeley’s Green Science Policy Institute (led by Arlene Blum, PhD, of UC Berkeley), which has been doing research and policy work for healthier buildings for many years, including work to reduce the use of flame retardants in building materials when they do not improve fire safety. UCSF’s own Veena Singla, Associate Director of Science & Policy at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), has been a major contributor to the Institute’s work in this area.

What You Can Do

  • Attend an upcoming symposium with expert, inspirational speakers—The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond—hosted by the Green Science Policy Institute on February 15 at UC Berkeley. Click here for details and registration.
  • When purchasing furniture and other upholstered products, check attached labels for this statement: “Contains no added flame retardants.” For furniture purchases at UCSF, choose One Workplace through BearBuy.
  • Keep your hands and house clean! A recent study in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology shows that frequent hand washing and house cleaning can reduce exposure to flame retardants, since chemicals migrate out of products and into household dust.
  • Check out the resources from UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) for information about how to prevent exposure to flame retardants and other toxic chemicals.

Image Source: IStock
Story: Green Impact