Minnesota has a proud tradition of supporting its 2,000 career and 20,000 volunteer firefighters, and that spirit was on full display last week when the state Senate passed the Firefighters and Children’s Health Protection Act (S.F. 1215) in a resounding 59-2 vote. This was a win for the future health of firefighters and the well-being of our state’s children. The legislation calls for a ban on the sale in Minnesota of upholstered furniture and mattresses that contain 10 specific halogenated flame retardants.
The duty is now on the Minnesota House and Speaker Kurt Daudt to pass this important legislation and send it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk for his signature.
Studies done within the last decade are confirming what we in the fire service have long known: That our brother and sister firefighters are contracting a wide variety of deadly cancers at an alarming rate, much higher than the general population. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study involving 30,000 career firefighters stricken with cancer between 1960 and 2009 found a 60 percent higher risk for esophageal cancer and increased risks for an array of other cancers compared with the general population. Another large study reported that firefighters have double the risk for testicular cancer and 51 percent increased risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Hundreds of studies also have linked many flame retardants, common in upholstered furniture like couches and chairs, and their combustion byproducts — furans and dioxins — to cancer. We know that firefighters are acutely exposed hundreds of times over a decadeslong career to these carcinogens, via inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin, the latter of which is especially insidious.
Skin absorption of these carcinogens increases 400 percent for every 5-degree rise in skin temperature. A firefighter in a hot room becomes like a sponge soaking up carcinogens. A 2009 California pilot-study measured the level of cancer causing furans and dioxins in firefighter blood, after fires, at more than 100 times the level found in the general public.
But it’s not only firefighters who suffer. The chemicals in flame retardants have been linked to lowered IQ in children (five points on average), developmental delays and even genital malformations in utero. These chemicals are so ubiquitous that every single one of us has some level of flame retardants accumulated in our tissues.
The sad irony here is that the chemicals that are supposed to protect us from fires are poisoning us. And they have proved to be totally ineffective, even detrimental, in protecting the public from fire. A peer-reviewed study published in 2000 in the journal Fire Science concluded that fires involving furniture treated with flame retardants provided only 3 extra seconds of escape time, while producing twice the amount of smoke, seven times the amount of carbon monoxide and 80 times the amount of soot compared with nontreated furniture. This inhibits escapability, due to lack of visibility and breathable air.
Despite this growing mountain of evidence on the dangers of halogenated flame retardants, policymakers have been slow to act. One reason is money. Flame retardants are a billion-dollar business, and the three main manufacturers have spared no expense in lobbying for their continued use. Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have succeeded in phasing out the most harmful flame retardants, but not before millions of dollars were spent by the American Chemistry Council and the National Flame Retardant Alliance in an attempt to thwart the efforts in those states.
Minnesota’s firefighters now wait for the House to act. Republican Rep. Jeff Howe’s companion bill, H.F. 1100, has been languishing in the House Commerce Committee for over a month without a hearing and no explanation for the lack of movement. There is no doubt that an up-or-down vote in the House will yield a similar result as the Senate’s vote. The problem seems to be a lack of will from leadership.
I implore the House to follow the lead of the Senate, pass this important bipartisan legislation and answer our call for help.
Chris Parsons is president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters.