In a blow to firefighters and environmental advocates, Governor Charlie Baker on Friday rejected a controversial bill passed by the Legislature last week that would have banned the sale of potentially toxic flame-retardant chemicals in furniture, bedding, and children’s products.
Fire officials and environmental advocates joined forces several years ago to support the restrictions on the flame retardants, contending that at least 10 frequently used chemicals endanger firefighters while doing little to stop fires.
In a letter sent to lawmakers, Baker wrote that he would have amended the bill if it had been sent to him during a regular session of the Legislature. But because the bill was passed during an informal session, he said he was effectively forced to veto it.
He noted that the bill would have made Massachusetts the only state in the nation to ban the retardants in car seats and adult mattresses and contended that the federal government already regulates the products.
“In addition, this ban would go into effect in less than five months, cutting the lead time for manufacturers by more than half as compared to the full year provided in the legislation as originally filed,” he said. “The resulting disruption to what is available to consumers in Massachusetts would likely have a disproportionate impact on families with lower incomes who are less able to afford more expensive alternatives.”
State lawmakers, environmental advocates, and firefighters said they were deeply disappointed by Baker’s refusal to sign the legislation, a step known as a pocket veto, which came after years of effort to pass the bill. The bill will have to go through the legislative process again before it can be resubmitted to the governor.
“He had the choice to stand with our firefighters, who risk their lives every day so that we can be safe,” said State Representative Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who cosponsored the bill with State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, a Democrat from Newton. “But this fight is not over, and we will be back this session to start this over.”
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 toxic burden tends to fall hardest on low-income families that cannot afford car seats made without the chemicals, the authors noted.
The bills, which exempted products manufactured before June 1, also had the support of the firefighters of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, and dozens of health and environmental organizations.
“It is outrageous that when given the option, Baker chose to stand with industry lobbyists instead of firefighters and families,” said Elizabeth Saunders, director of Clean Water Action in Massachusetts, an advocacy group. “The chemical industry has lied up, down, and sideways about what this bill will do to fire safety and to products sold in Massachusetts, and the governor bought the lies hook, line, and sinker.”
Firefighters said the bill would have been “a step forward to reduce the risk” of cancer for some 12,000 of their ranks in Massachusetts.
“The science and research into the adverse health effects on children, families, and firefighters from these toxic chemicals is irrefutable,” said Rich MacKinnon, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. “As firefighters, we accept an inherent risk that comes with our profession, but families should not be needlessly put at risk when they purchase children products and household items.”
Flame retardants have been widely used since 1975, when California began requiring that all polyurethane foam in furniture and children’s products be able to resist open flame for 12 seconds. But as evidence linking firefighting and cancer has emerged, a growing number of states have stopped requiring them.
The state’s largest business trade group opposed the measure, saying it would hurt manufacturers and retailers.
“We appreciate the governor’s deliberative approach to analyzing the impacts of this bill and we look forward to working with his administration and the Legislature next session on this issue,” said Robert Rio, a senior vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents thousands of manufacturers and retailers.
Baker also justified his veto by saying the bill would have required the state Department of Environmental Protection to ban additional flame retardants in the future “based solely on certain risks, without any consideration of countervailing benefits.”
“DEP has an important role to play in analyzing the health and environmental impacts of flame retardants, but must be able to exercise reasoned judgment based on sound science before banning a flame retardant,” he said.
Baker said he would consider signing revised legislation, calling for a “deliberative process involving all stakeholders and an implementation schedule that takes into account the realities of manufacturing and distribution practices.”
But researchers who study the health effects of flame retardants say many of the chemicals are dangerous because they often migrate out of products and mingle with dust in homes. As a result, they can end up ingested by children.
In 2012, researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that babies exposed to chemicals known as PBDEs were more likely to have a lower IQ and learning problems. PBDEs are among the 11 chemicals that would have been banned in the bill.
The bill would have allowed manufacturers to use alternatives to flame retardants, such as less flammable materials and fabrics with tighter weaves.
“Today is a disappointing day for Massachusetts residents looking for protection of their health,” said Cheryl Osimo, executive director of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. “Baker has put off taking an important action that will have an impact on the health of future generations.”