Bill would ban flame-retardant chemicals

Published 7:50 am Thursday, April 4, 2019

By Kirsti Marohn

MPR News/90.1 FM

A bipartisan bill at the Minnesota Legislature would ban flame-retardant chemicals believed to be a health threat to firefighters and children.

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It would also restrict the use of a certain firefighting foam that has contaminated drinking water supplies around the country, including in Minnesota.

But the bill has run into opposition from chemical manufacturers, who say the flame retardants are important for suppressing fires. They argue that Minnesota shouldn’t take action until the federal government weighs in on their safety and sets regulations.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed a ban prohibiting the sale and distribution of children’s products and upholstered residential furniture that contains more than a certain amount of four flame-retardant chemicals. The bill was watered down from its original form, which sought to ban 10 retardants.

Among those lobbying hardest for the bill were firefighters worried about what the chemicals are doing to their health.

“Nobody understood why firefighters would be against flame retardants. It didn’t make sense to most people,” said Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Firefighters. He was among several firefighters and advocates who testified before the Legislature as it considered the 2015 bill.

Parsons said flame retardants really aren’t effective at stopping fires. And when they burn, they produce furans and dioxins, which are known carcinogens, he said.

Firefighters are exposed to those cancer-causing chemicals when they inhale them or absorb them through their skin when they’re fighting a fire. Studies have shown firefighters have a 14 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than the general population.

This year, Parsons and other advocates are trying again: this time, they’re pushing a bill that would phase out the use of a whole class of flame-retardant chemicals.

The bill’s House author, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, said flame retardants were first put into couches and mattresses decades ago, when more people smoked in their homes — and sometimes fell asleep with a lit cigarette.

“What we found over time is that the the chemicals actually do very little to increase the length of time you have to get out of your home in a fire,” said Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville.

The chemicals can get into dust in a home, where young children may be crawling on the floor, she said. Studies have linked flame-retardant chemicals to health problems in humans and animals, including developmental and reproductive issues.

“There really isn’t a great benefit in having those chemicals in the things that are in our homes and the things our kids put in their mouths and the things that we’re exposed to,” Becker-Finn said.