Chemicals pumped into America’s furniture don’t do much to prevent fires and could be poisoning the public, a Senate hearing was told Tuesday.
It also appeared that government agencies are hamstrung to deal with the problem and that Congress will not be able agree on a way to intervene any time soon.
The hearing could add momentum to new, potentially costly, chemical regulations that industry has been resisting, however.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission said Tuesday they have been unable to adequately assess whether flame retardant chemicals now in use actually combat fires or whether they are causing cancers, developmental defects in children and other diseases.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared exasperated at the hearing that the CPSC has been unable to finalize a rule on flammable furniture for four years.
The rule has been delayed in part because the CPSC was using the Pall Mall unfiltered brand as its test cigarette and Pall Mall stopped making that cigarette.
“How can we have gotten to the point where Europe has figured this out, or thinks they have, but we can’t? The United States just keeps studying away,” he said.
CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum testified that the effort has been hurt by burdens in the Flammable Fabrics Act.
She said that from the existing evidence it does not appear that the chemicals now in use are effective in fighting fires. Flame barriers placed behind furniture could provide some protection.
On the health effects, the hearing put the focus on a long-stymied effort to reform the basic EPA toxic chemical law after the EPA testified it does not have the authority it needs to address the problem.
The reform effort is being led by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). He indicated Tuesday that he faces an uphill battle in this Congress.
James Jones, acting assistant EPA administrator, testified that the 35-year old Toxic Chemicals Safety Act is inadequate and led to the agency missing the dangers of at least one flame retardant chemical.
The law does not require companies to prove chemicals are safe before they are brought to market and does not require them to provide EPA with safety data.
“We have looked at the 26,000 new chemicals. We are trying to use our judgment, often in the absence of data,” Jones said.
American Home Furnishings Alliance CEO Andy Counts testified that the industry is working to revise California’s requirement that flame retardant chemicals be used and that it has voluntarily stopped using chemicals in the past once studies indicated health dangers.
Lautenberg said he his hoping for a markup of his Safe Chemicals Act next week in the Environment and Public Works Committee. He acknowledged that TSCA reform does not appear to be going anywhere in the House this year. In 2010, then-Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pushed his own reform bill.
Durbin suggested that industry pressure will have to be resisted for something to get done.
“I know from the congressional perspective, the industry will come in whenever there is proposals and fight for what they consider to be safeguards for their products,” Durbin said.
He said that the role the tobacco and chemical industries have played in pushing the furniture flame retardant chemicals needs to be examined. Tobacco makers were keen to avoid legislation requiring self-extinguishing cigarettes, he suggested.