An effort by Minnesota firefighters to ban flame-retardant chemicals they blame for higher cancer rates within their ranks is stalled at the Legislature, where House leaders have been reluctant to act.
"The longer we wait, the more firefighters are going to be at risk, the more firefighters are going to contract cancer, and eventually they die," said St. Paul Fire Department Capt. Chris Parsons. Moments later he lit a couch ablaze at a training facility Thursday to demonstrate the effectiveness of flame retardants compared to the harmful chemicals they release.
Parsons is president of Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, a union that helped spearhead bipartisan legislation to phase out 10 flame-retardant chemicals used in furniture, textiles, mattresses and children's products. The measure would ban the manufacture and wholesale distribution of such items in Minnesota by 2017. By 2018, it would ban the retail sale of such items, no matter where they were manufactured.
Firefighters say the retardants grant only seconds of extra escape time, while creating significantly higher amounts of smoke, carbon monoxide and soot. They blame inhalation of such chemicals for a rise in firefighter cancer deaths. In 2014, cancer was attributed to more than half of professional firefighter line-of-duty deaths nationwide. Parsons knows four firefighters currently battling cancer, including 17-year veteran St. Paul firefighter Steve Shapira, who is in the midst of a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The bill is modeled after federal legislation by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Parsons said that after the legislation failed to gain traction at the national level because of a strong chemical lobby, firefighters have resorted to a state-by-state approach. Oregon, Maine and Vermont have passed similar legislation. Six other states are considering it.
In Minnesota, a bill sponsored by Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, passed 59-2 in the Minnesota Senate earlier this week. In the Republican-led House, the effort is led by Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, a former firefighter himself who long ago advocated for fire retardants but has since changed course. Despite Howe's advocacy and broad support from the Health and Human Services Committee, the bill is bottled up in the House Commerce Committee, where it has failed to even get a hearing.
Parsons said he met with House Speaker Kurt Daudt in hopes of pushing the legislation to the House floor. He said Daudt told him he'd talk to Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska. But Parsons is skeptical that it's out of leadership's hands.
"I can guarantee you if Kurt Daudt wanted it to move, it would get moved," Parsons said.
Daudt's spokeswoman Susan Closmore said the bill "continues to work through the process." She said that no hearing date has been set, but Hoppe was "in discussions with interested parties."
Retardants not sole cause
The bill is opposed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, who say Minnesota's proposed ban goes much further than those in other states, and is too broad.
"It's important to know that when we're talking about flame retardants that one size does not fit all," Tony Kwilas, the chamber's director of environmental policy, told the HHS Committee in March. "There are different chemicals in different applications for all the products we're talking about."
Robert Simon, vice president of chemical products and technology for the American Chemistry Council, testified that the bill goes too far, saying that multiple flame retardants have different uses.
"There does need to be more work here," he said of determining and fighting increased causes of cancer in firefighters. "We don't think as part of that we should be banning some products that have been determined not to present a risk and have been proven to provide critical benefits."
In a statement Thursday, Simon pointed to studies that showed flame retardants did not make smoke more toxic, and proved 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 important thing is to minimize firefighter exposure to smoke and combustion byproducts, so it is essential that best practices are followed by all firefighters with respect to using protective equipment and appropriately handling firefighter gear during a fire and during subsequent clean up," he said.
'What we're dealing with'
At the St. Paul Fire Training Center, Parsons and firefighter Pete Gutzmann led reporters into a training room arranged to look like the average living room. The couch was labeled as containing flame-retardant material, though Parsons couldn't say specifically which kind.
Gutzmann touched a torch to the furniture and within two minutes it was fully engulfed. Acrid, heavy smoke drifted toward the ceiling, then thickened, pushing toward the floor. Parsons and Gutzmann put out the fire and stepped outside as a thick plume of smoke billowed out a window behind them. Gutzmann's helmet and mask were black with soot, hiding his face.
"These are the carcinogens that we're dealing with, and we need the House to act," Parsons said. "Any firefighter will tell you that up to three or four days after a fire, it doesn't matter how many times you bathe or wash your hair, the moment you sweat you can smell your previous house fire coming through your skin. These things are nasty, they're insidious and they're not helping keep the public from being harmed in a fire. They're harming firefighters; we need to get them out of our homes."