California Forum

Another View: A call for clarity for consumers in the debate over flame retardants

The past year has seen considerable debate in Sacramento about the use of flame retardants in home furnishings. The nation’s leading manufacturers of flame retardants support open, honest, science-based discussion about their products, but much of what has taken place in the Capitol so far has offered consumers more confusion than clarity (“The next lobbyist battle over ‘toxic’ flame retardants”; editorials, June 22).

Most recently, the Legislature has been considering a bill (SB 1019) that would require furniture makers to affix a new label on their products that indicates whether the products contain flame retardants. The main problem with the proposed label is that it would not tell consumers the full story – that fire safety standards were changed in California.

Earlier this year, the state got rid of a 4-decades-old regulation that had required upholstered furniture to withstand open flames, such as those from candles or matches – flame retardants often played an important role in helping furniture meet this strict standard. The decision was opposed by a bipartisan group of legislators, as well as by organizations like the National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters Laboratories.

Given the change to fire safety requirements, an overwhelming majority of likely voters in California, 82 percent, said that labels on furniture should notify consumers whether the product was tested for resistance to open flames, according to a recent survey conducted for the American Chemistry Council by a leading polling firm.

This means that if the Legislature is truly interested in the consumers’ right to know, it should agree that any furniture label should inform the public about the fire safety standard of furniture.

The second problem with the proposed bill is that it is unnecessary. California’s Proposition 65 already requires businesses to warn the public of exposure to certain chemicals. By requiring furniture makers to include language for many flame retardants that have not been deemed harmful under Proposition 65 guidelines, the labels could mislead and confuse consumers.

If ultimately the Legislature decided a new furniture label is necessary, the label must be clear, fact-based and include complete information. This means that a label should state that, as a result of changes to the state’s flammability standard, furniture may no longer be resistant to ignition from a candle or other small open flame.

At the heart of the matter is whether, when given information about a product, consumers have the right to receive all the necessary information about that product. In mandating labels that provide only selective information, SB 1019, as it currently stands, editorializes rather than informs, and therefore does consumers a grave disservice.