Minnesota legislators are on the verge of approving the nation's most restrictive use of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture and an array of household items such as textiles, mattresses and children's products.
State firefighters have been pushing for legislation that would phase out the use of 10 such chemicals, saying they are ineffective in slowing the spread of fire and contain toxins that are sickening responders. Monday's compromise, reached among the firefighters, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and chemical companies, would phase out the manufacture and sale of four commonly used flame retardants.
The deal comes a week to the day after firefighters filled hallways at the Capitol decrying what they called the "slow death" of the original bill, which had sailed through the Senate but had not gotten a hearing in the House Commerce committee.
Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union President Chris Parsons expressed mixed emotions about Monday's compromise.
"We are leaving off the list six carcinogenic flame retardants, so in that regards I'm not pleased about it," said Parsons, a St. Paul fire captain. "But does it move the conversation further, does it get us closer to our goal? Yes. In the meantime will firefighters continue to be exposed? That I'm not happy about."
Susan Shaw, director and founder of the Marine & Environmental Research Institute, testified before a House Committee on Monday that "firefighters inhale, ingest, and absorb hundreds of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals during every phase of firefighting — suppression, knockdown/ventilation, and cleanup."
A professor at the State University of New York at Albany, Shaw told the panel that young firefighters are developing aggressive cancers at an earlier age than the general population. "Cancer is a looming personal catastrophe for each and every firefighter," she said.
The initial 10-chemical ban was opposed by the Chamber, the American Chemistry Council and the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, a coalition that said the proposed ban was too broad. Similar legislation to ban fire retardants has passed in Oregon, Maine and Vermont, but was narrower in scope.
"It's important to remember that when you start talking about chemical regulation and specifically flame retardants, that one size does not fit all." Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, told the panel.
Robert Simon, vice president of chemical products and technology for the American Chemistry Council, points to studies that showed flame retardants did not make smoke more toxic, and prove that flame retardants slowed the spread of fire by minutes. Regardless of whether flame retardants are present, he said, smoke and other fire byproducts are naturally dangerous.
The House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee, after hearing Monday's testimony, passed the modified bill, which is expected to be approved by the full House and Senate.
Firefighters have been arguing nationally that flame retardants, while initially thought to hold great promise for slowing the spread of deadly fires, have failed to prove effective while, they contend, contributing to their profession's increased cancer rates.
Nationwide, cancer attributes for half of line-of-duty deaths among professional firefighters. St. Paul fire Capt. Steve Shapira, who has served 17 years, last year was diagnosed at 46 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"Cancer has changed my entire world," said Shapira, a married father who is now on sick leave and is battling with the city of St. Paul to receive workers' compensation. "Not one aspect has not been affected."
Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, a former firefighter who sponsored the bill, said negotiations were a drawn-out debate that ultimately focused on which chemicals were most dangerous, and which are still in use.
"I don't think anybody's really happy in this group, which probably means it's close to pretty good legislation, and I think it's as far as we can get this time," Howe said.