Supervisor's Report

Protecting the public and first responders from toxic chemicals

Protecting the public and keeping our families, children, and pets healthy and safe is a top priority. Whether it’s enhancing public safety, or implementing common-sense policies that improve public health, I believe we can’t be afraid to challenge the status quo to do so — especially when those health and safety concerns are in our homes.

Most people are unaware (myself included until I learned more) that common household furniture and children’s products often contain toxic chemicals that have been linked to serious health ailments, including birth defects, decreased fertility, learning disorders in children, cancer in firefighters and other first responders, and thyroid disorders in pets.

For decades, California has been the only state in the nation to require the use of highly toxic flame-retardant chemicals in household furniture and children’s products such as cribs, strollers, infant carriers, changing tables, and high chairs. Crazy — right?

Despite no evidence these toxic chemicals actually save lives, homes here in San Francisco and throughout the state; unfortunately, have literally pounds of flame retardants circulating in them from furniture alone. Studies have specifically shown flame retardants do not significantly reduce fire risk despite claims from the chemical industry arguing otherwise.

As a result, virtually everyone in California has detectable levels of flame retardants in his or her blood. Unfortunately, certain populations have much higher exposure to flame retardants — particularly the low income, pregnant women, and young children throughout California. In fact, children in California carry some of the highest levels of flame retardant chemicals seen in children across the United States.

It is not only our children who are being harmed by these toxic chemicals, it’s our firefighters as well. I learned about the elevated rates of cancer among our firefighters through the advocacy and work of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Fund: Empirically, firefighters have three times the amount of flame retardant chemicals in their system compared to the general population.

So if all the data and facts show the harmful effects of these toxic chemicals, why have we allowed these chemicals to continue to be sold in our furniture and children’s products? The simple and unfortunate answer is money and a powerful lobbying industry.

State legislators tried to ban these chemicals in Sacramento, but were met with fierce resistance. According to reporting in the San Francisco Chronicle, the chemical industry spent a whopping $22 million in just a single year to fight the ban. While state legislators managed to pass a bill requiring the labeling of furniture containing flame retardants and Governor Brown directed a state agency to rewrite fire safety regulations so safety would be maintained without the use of these chemicals, it still did not solve the problem.

Despite the new regulations, many manufacturers have recklessly continued to use flame retardants. The state agency charged with overseeing these regulations found 29 percent of household furniture still contained these chemicals, and the Center for Environmental Health found that 25 percent of children’s products still contained these toxic chemicals.

Bottom line: If our state government could not get its act together to do the right thing, then I believe we must act locally. As a parent, and as a resident of San Francisco, I do not want these chemicals in my home.

I worked side-by-side with our Department of Environment, public health advocates, and furniture retailers to introduce a first-in-the-country ban on the sale of upholstered furniture and children’s products treated with flame retardant chemicals. The ban, which was just approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last month, also updated labeling requirements to better educate the public and adds penalties for those found breaking the law.

Staff from the Department of Environment spent countless hours doing outreach, including talking to all San Francisco furniture retailers to educate them about the upcoming proposal and ultimate ban. The ban applies to online and brick and mortar retailers and will take effect Jan. 1, 2019, to give small businesses time to comply.

Especially with the recent tragic fires in the North Bay, we must do everything in our power to protect our first responders, families, and pets from these toxic chemicals. I hope and believe this policy can act as a model for other communities up and down the state who want to protect their respective communities from these harmful chemicals.

Through effective public policy, we can better educate the public and protect them from these toxic chemicals. I believe we can force the market to change and provide healthier and safer products for consumers. Our health and the future health of our communities depends on it.


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