Danville Express

Newsfront - September 21, 2007

Fire bill kills after campaign against it

Torlakson supports law to ban toxic retardants

by Jordan M. Doronila

A blitzkrieg of ads saying: "A DEADLY MISTAKE" and "EVERY SECOND COUNTS WHEN ESCAPING A FIRE" roared throughout Contra Costa County and across California.

They were referring to recent state Assembly Bill 706, sponsored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D, San Francisco), that bans brominated and chlorinated fire chemicals, fire retardants, on furniture and clothing.

Although the chemicals slow the process when fire ignites, they create dioxins when they are burned; and in effect, they can cause cancer when firefighters inhale them, Leno said. The bill passed the Assembly but faced a slight majority of negative votes in the state Senate, killing it Sept 12, on a vote of 20-19.

Residents in the San Ramon Valley received dramatic mailers, with pictures of flames torching a home, frightened children and helpless elderly, urging them to call their representatives and vote against the bill.

"I think they are deceptive," said state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D, District 7), who represents Danville. "People behind the ads (should) let us know who they are and how much they funded (the campaign)."

"It's misleading information," he added.

Californians for Fire Safety was the group responsible for paying for the ads against the bill. Flame retardants play a critical role in making homes, apartments, hospitals and other facilities safe from fire, its Web site said.

The group said retardants help prevent fires from starting and slow the growth rate of fires that do start, and they are widely used in furniture, fabrics, electronics, electrical appliances, and all forms of public transportation.

But Leno and his supporters disagree. When firefighters are exposed to burning retardants, they have an elevated risk of four types of cancers, including multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate cancer and testicular cancer, according to the November 2006 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, he said. The dioxins that may cause cancer are found in soot and smoke and are the likely source of elevated cancer risk, Leno said.

"The measure was a logical safety improvement," said Torlakson. "Why put residents in houses, offices and firefighters in danger with hazardous chemicals?"

Torlakson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there are alternatives to protect furniture and items without using brominated and chlorinated retardants. Also, the standards of flammability can still be maintained. There are manufacturers that make furniture resistant to fire, his legal aides said.

He noted the bill may be revived in the next session.

Gene Gantt, a firefighter and legislative director for the California Fire Chiefs Association, which comprises fire districts across the state, including the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, said he is working with both sides to develop a compromise.

"Our concern is fire safety in homes," Gantt said. "We neither oppose nor advocate the bill."

He said supporters can say they have scientific studies that show the negative effects of fire retardants; and opponents can find data of how it's vital to safety.

"We are not in the middle of what science is," he said.

But his organization did send a letter of concern that if retardants are taken out of homes, there may be a missing gap of protection for residents in case a fire occurs.

Gantt said firefighters have to deal with many hazardous chemicals - not just brominated or chlorinated. He noted that dioxins also occur naturally in a forest fire.

"There's a concern," he said.

"We get a lot of chemicals produced over the years," said Terry Koeper, professor of Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, which has firefighter training. "We have to train new firefighters. We have to be aware of these things."

Gantt said the California State Firefighters Association and the California Fire Professionals support Leno's bill.

He added that the recent wave of marketing ads against it were from the chemical industry. Californians for Fire Safety was founded by Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp., and ICL Industrial and other groups to oppose Leno's bill.

Calls to Californians for Fire Safety asking for the cost of the advertising campaign against the bill were not returned by press time.


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