As nearly a dozen states consider legislation that would ban toxic flame retardants, Illinois apparently will remain on the sidelines of a growing debate about chemicals linked to cancer, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
On a 10-5 vote, an Illinois House committee on Wednesday rejected a measure that would have prohibited manufacturers from selling baby products and upholstered furniture in the state that are made with any of three forms of a flame retardant known as chlorinated tris.
One form of chlorinated tris, known as TDCPP, was voluntarily removed from children's pajamas in the late 1970s over cancer concerns. Because it wasn't formally banned, manufacturers can legally add it to other products.
A study published last year by Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton suggests that TDCPP is the most commonly used flame retardant in upholstered furniture and baby products.
Sponsors of the Illinois legislation said they introduced it in response to a Tribune investigation that revealed a decadeslong campaign of deception by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote the use of flame retardants. Similar measures are pending in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Washington state.
Billed as lifesavers, flame retardants added to furniture cushions actually provide no meaningful protection from fires, according to federal researchers and independent scientists. Some of the most widely used chemicals are linked to health problems, but federal law makes it practically impossible to force them off the market.
"What states need to do to move this issue forward is to pass bills like this and force the federal government to act," said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Echoing recent debates about other toxic compounds in consumer products, a lobbyist for the chemical industry said a patchwork of state legislation targeting flame retardants would hurt companies and increase costs for consumers.
Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, also said the widespread use of flame retardants has been a factor in the sharp decline in household fire deaths since the 1970s.
"The products we manufacture are used to protect children," said Biel, whose organization is the state lobbying arm of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's chief trade group. "The proponents of this legislation can't show that any of these products have caused actual harm, but we can show clearly that they have saved a number of lives."
The Tribune series documented how the chemical industry has repeatedly misled the public with flawed data and questionable claims about the effectiveness of flame retardants.
The lead author of one government study cited by the industry told the newspaper his findings have been grossly distorted and that the amount of flame retardants used in household furniture doesn't work. Another industry-touted finding was based on a test of self-extinguishing theatrical fabric rather than furniture upholstery.
Declining smoking rates and increased use of smoke detectors have played a major role in reducing fire deaths and damage, according to federal and independent fire experts.
After the Tribune investigation, California Gov. Jerry Brown moved to scrap an obscure 1975 rule that led to the widespread use of chlorinated tris and other flame retardants in upholstered furniture and baby products nationwide.
California officials are considering a new rule that would address smoldering cigarettes, the leading cause of furniture fires. Manufacturers say they could comply without adding flame retardants to foam cushions or furniture fabric.