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Firefighters, child health advocates applaud bill to ban potentially toxic flame retardants

It’s still not unusual to find potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals in children’s products, especially car seats.
AFP/Getty Images/File
It’s still not unusual to find potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals in children’s products, especially car seats.

To environmentalists, it was a no-brainer bill that would ban furniture, bedding, and children’s products containing potentially toxic flame-retardant chemicals from being made or sold in Massachusetts.

But the state’s largest business trade group is objecting, not just because its leaders believe the measure would hurt manufacturers and retailers, but because it was passed on New Year’s Day, during an informal, sparsely attended legislative session.

“It is puzzling why the Legislature would do such a bill in an informal session with no opportunity for stakeholder input,” said Robert Rio, a senior vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents thousands of manufacturers and retailers.

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Health advocates and fire safety officials are urging Governor Charlie Baker to sign the bill, which they say will help reduce children’s and firefighters’ exposure to chemicals linked to serious health problems.

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The bill exempts products that were manufactured before June 1.

Furniture makers have slowly phased out many of these chemicals, but it is not unusual to still find them in children’s products, especially car seats and nap mats that are often used in day care, said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director of Clean Water Action & Clean Water Fund, one of several groups that promoted the bill’s passage.

Last month, the Ecology Center, a Michigan environmental research organization, released a study that showed that 83 percent of children’s car seats tested contain toxic chemicals used as flame retardants. The authors noted the toxic burden tends to fall hardest on low-income families that cannot afford car seats made without the chemicals.

Researchers who study the health effects of flame retardants say the chemicals typically migrate out of products and mingle with dust in homes.

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“Kids, just because of their activities, spend time on the floor and put things in their mouth, so they have higher exposure,” said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton.

Researchers from University of California Berkeley in 2012 found that children exposed as babies to PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, were more likely to have a lower IQ and learning problems. PBDEs are among the 11 chemicals banned in the new Massachusetts bill.

Dodson and other health advocates said manufacturers can use safer alternatives to flame retardants, such as less flammable materials and fabrics with tighter weaves.

Thomas Webster, a professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health, said children are particularly vulnerable to PBDEs and similar chemicals because their brains are still forming. Evidence of ill effects is strong for some, but not all, of the newly banned 11 chemicals, Webster said. But he said it’s reasonable to suspect they, too, might be problematic.

Too often, he said, chemicals are removed from products after they are found to be toxic, only to be replaced by other substances that are also later discovered to be hazardous.

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“Stuff is manufactured and put in products and we don’t know much about the health effects until later, and that seems crazy,” Webster said.

Rio of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts said state lawmakers failed to sufficiently study the potential effects on Massachusetts companies. He said the legislation will create a bureaucratic nightmare for distributors and sellers trying to comply with the law, while competing with products sold online and in nearby states.

Massachusetts “companies that make any of these components will no longer be able to sell these products anywhere, even in places where they are legal, since the manufacturing is prohibited,” Rio said.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical companies, also objects to the legislation.

“Forcing through bills that remove an important layer of fire protection with little input and no debate does not support public safety and endangers the integrity of the legislative process,” it said in a statement.

The bill spells out penalties for manufacturers and retailers that violate the regulation: $100 for the first product, with a maximum of $5,000. A second violation is a fine of up to $250 per product and a maximum of $25,000. Subsequent violations are a fine of $1,000 per product and a maximum of $50,000.

But the bill leaves it up to the state Department of Environmental Protection to write rules for enforcing the regulations.

A spokesman for the governor said the bill is among several pieces of legislation passed in the last few days and still under review. If Baker signs the bill, Massachusetts will join 13 other states that have already banned one or more flame retardants, according to health advocates.

Firefighters, meanwhile, are ecstatic that after six years of pushing for the measure, lawmakers finally gave the bill a thumbs-up.

“These so-called fire retardants they put in these fabrics don’t add up to any type of protection in fire at all,” said Richard MacKinnon, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. “We are seeing the reverse, that contents and rooms are burning up at a higher rate of speed and increasing the risk to our firefighters in this toxic soup.”

Several studies have found firefighters were more likely than civilians to develop several types of cancers, and some firefighter organizations say they fear that certain chemicals, such as flame retardants, increase that risk.

The issue was first championed in the Legislature by former longtime Lexington firefighter Kenneth J. Donnelly, who went on to become a state senator. But Donnelly didn’t live to see the bill finally passed. He died in 2017 of brain cancer.

Correction: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect date for exempted products under the bill.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.