Cancer-linked chemicals found in some furniture remain a health risk, Team 10 reveals

Gov. Brown: Fire retardants legislation outdated

SAN DIEGO - Millions of homes have couches, baby chairs and other furniture that most likely contain toxic chemicals, according to researchers. The chemicals are used in flame retardants used to treat furniture, and many people believe the chemicals cause cancer -- especially when burned in fires.

A recent study conducted by Duke University and the University of California at Berkley shows one-third of all couches contain chemicals in the form of flame retardants.

Forty-one percent of the 102 couches researchers tested had foam with chlorinated Tris, classified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen.

The report shows that 17 percent of the couches tested contained the chemical pentaBDE, which is banned worldwide, but still widely used to treat couches in the years leading up to the ban.

When the chemicals burn in house fires, some firefighters believe the toxic smoke poses a health hazard for firefighters and the neighbors who live near a burning home.

San Diego firefighters set a mock living room on fire to show Team 10 how much smoke is produced in a typical blaze.

In just minutes, the fire goes from a small flame to billowing smoke, so thick Team 10 cameras had to move back from the blaze.

"Everything you saw coming out in the dark smoke, that is where you are going to see the chemicals," said San Diego Fire Marshall Doug Perry.

Research by Duke University and U.C. Berkley revealed that those chemicals come from flame retardant sprayed on all furniture in California since 1975.

The study showed the chemicals are linked to hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity, in addition to cancer.

"We've got a major toxic problem we are encountering," said former firefighter Tony Stefani.

Stefani was captain of his rescue squad in San Francisco until he found out he had cancer.

Stefani’s said his type of cancer is one that his doctors told him mostly appears in people who work in the chemical industry.

He remembers a conversation with his doctor about his diagnoses.

"I told him I was a fireman and he looked at me and smiled and said, 'You might not realize it, but you do work in the chemical industry when you extinguish these fires," Stefani recalled.

The chemical industry says there is no proof flame retardants cause any problems. In fact, the industry maintains retardants slow down burn time and save lives.

Stefani openly disagrees, and even testified in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing called, "Oversight of EPA Authorities and Actions to Control Toxic Chemicals."

After years of pressure from cancer patients like Stefani and other environmental groups, California Gov. Jerry Brown called for an overhaul of Technical Bulletin 117.

TB 117 requires the foam in furniture to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds.

It's the reason manufacturers pump pounds of chemicals in upholstery foam.

The chemicals stop the foam from quickly catching on fire, but critics say hardly any fires start that way.

Brown made his recommendation in July 2012. Seven months later, there has been no change to the decades-old regulation, and Team 10 asked what's taking so long.

"It's not taking so long as you say, rather, it's the regular course of regulatory packages,” said California Department of Consumer Affairs spokesman Russ Heimerich.

“Regulations don't happen overnight. In fact this is moving pretty fast. Often regulations can take a year, 14 or 18 months," Heimerich added. 

Not fast enough, and not strict enough for Stefani. He said he worries once the overhaul does pass -- it will do nothing about all of the furniture treated with chemicals that already are in homes.

"This is going to be with us for the rest of our lives,” Stefani said. “I don't think there is any escaping it."

The chemical industry says there is no proof flame retardants cause any problems. In fact, the industry maintains retardants slow down burn time and save lives.

Team 10 talked to San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald about the issue. As chair of the Public Safety Committee, she has her own concerns.

"If it's not slowing down the spread of fire and it is linked to disease in people who live with this furniture and go in and fight these fires. We really need to reconsider this," said Emerald.

State officials told Team 10 they are releasing the first draft of the regulation on Friday.

A draft of the revised TB 117 will be made public on Friday. Then there is a 45-day review period. If any changes are made to the draft, there is another 15-day period before the new regulation would go into effect.

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