January 9, 2019

Push for flame retardant bill countered by industry call for veto

Photo | SHNS
Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming stood with a group of lawmakers and advocates outside the House Chamber on Tuesday calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to sign the flame retardant bill.

Gov. Charlie Baker is facing mounting pressure to sign a bill that would ban the use of certain toxic flame retardant chemicals in many products as industry groups lobby hard for the Republican to veto the bill.

Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Marjorie Decker brought together environmental advocates and firefighters on Tuesday to press publicly for the governor to sign the bill, which would ban the use of 11 flame retardant chemicals in children's products, household furniture and bedding.

"This bill is ready to be signed," Decker said, adding, "We did all the hard work. I would love to be governor right now, and all I had to do was sign that bill and be the hero that he can be."

Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming said the 11 flame retardants that would be banned by the legislation are ineffective at preventing fire deaths, and create health hazards for firefighters and children who absorb the chemicals into their bodies through products like pillows, mattresses and car seats.

"I'm opposed to the use of flame retardants in furniture because of the health risk, but even if there were no health risk I would be opposed to the use of flame retardants in furniture because I believe, and I believe the evidence shows, it makes no difference in the way the furniture burns, and when the furniture or other products do burn the smoke that's produced traps the occupants quicker," Fleming said.

At least 12 states have banned a variety of flame retardant chemicals used in children's products.

Several business groups, however, have argued that some of the chemicals that would be banned can be used safely, and to prohibit them would drive up costs for consumers and hurt Massachusetts businesses.

The opponents include the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association and the American Chemistry Council, who met privately Monday afternoon with administration officials, including senior advisor Tim Buckley and general counsel Lon Povich, to urge the governor to veto the bill.

The Cambridge Democrat said supporters, including herself, Clean Water Action and the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, have reached out to the governor's staff to provide any information they might need, but have only been told that the bill is being reviewed.

"That's outrageous," Decker said, contrasting the lack of engagement from the governor's office with the meeting between Baker's staff and industry officials.

The governor's office confirmed the meeting with opponents, and said it has also had contact with supporters of the bill.

"The administration has been communicating with Representative Decker and other proponents of the legislation since its passage and is carefully reviewing the bill," spokesman Brendan Moss said.

The governor has also received letters of opposition from the International Sleep Products Association, the American Home Furnishings Alliance and Boston Bed Company.

"We understand and support preventing exposure to dangerous chemicals; however (the bill) goes too far and could endanger children's lives," wrote Kelly Mariotti, who as executive director of Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association represents manufacturers of car and booster seats.

Baker has said little about the bill.

"It's still under review," he told reporters Monday. Asked if he had any specific concerns, Baker said, "It's still under review."

The governor has until Friday to decide what to do with the bill, and could either sign it, veto it, or take no action, which would also kill the bill and force lawmakers to start the process over again.

"I'm asking the governor to stand with us, and I know he will because he believes in the public good and he believes in public safety, and I don't think he believes in supporting the businesses with vested interest who don't want to come to the table," Creem said at a press conference in the State House.

Elizabeth Saunders, the Massachusetts director of Clean Water Action, said studies have shown firefighters to have levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood two to three times higher than the average American and up to 100 percent higher after a fire.

"We count on firefighters to put their lives on the line when we're in our greatest time of need and it would be unconscionable for Governor Baker to do any other thing than to sign this bill to reduce firefighters' exposure and risk of cancer," she said.

Saunders also said that industry warnings about the high cost to consumers of products made with alternative flame retardants are overstated, and Decker said that retailers like Costco and Target are phasing out furniture products with harmful flame retardants.

"They don't work. Did you get that? They're not safe," Decker said.

The Legislature sent the bill to the governor's desk on New Year's Day, the final day of the previous two-year session. The Senate passed a version of the bill in late June, but Creem said it had been revised and scaled back over the course of a back-and-forth with industries.

Decker bristled when asked if the Legislature had tied its hands by waiting until the final moment to pass the bill, eliminating the governor's ability to offer an amendment or the Legislature's ability to override a possible veto.

"This is where we are. It's not been for a lack of work. It's not like people ignored it for a year and then picked it up," she said.

Both Decker and Creem said that they have not heard anyone argue against the science that these flame retardant chemicals can be absorbed into the bodies of young children and adults and have negative health effects, such as a higher risk of cancer.

Car seat manufacturers argue that alternative products can cost as much as three times as products that currently comply with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations, and that some states like California have exempted car seats, though their bans on chemicals are also much broader.

Mattress manufacturers have also argued that the bill would make it difficult for them to comply with federal flammability standards, that they will not be able to comply with the bill as required within six months, and that local manufacturers and retailers would be at a disadvantage to online sellers who could import products from out-of-state without enhanced inspections.

Decker, however, said Massachusetts would not be an outlier as industries have already started moving in this direction.

"Why would we allow them to continue using things that we know are poisoning us. That's the question, and I will say this bill has been vetted, researched, challenged, responded to and modified to meet all of those answers," Decker said.

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