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Bill would ban flame-retardant chemicals in Minnesota

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Crews hosed down buildings.
Minneapolis firefighters worked to put out a fire along West Broadway near Bryant Avenue in 2015. A bipartisan bill at the Minnesota Legislature would ban flame-retardant chemicals believed to be a health threat to firefighters and children.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015

A bipartisan bill at the Minnesota Legislature would ban flame-retardant chemicals believed to be a health threat to firefighters and children.

It would also restrict the use of a certain firefighting foam that has contaminated drinking water supplies around the country, including in Minnesota.

But the bill has run into opposition from chemical manufacturers, who say the flame retardants are important for suppressing fires. They argue that Minnesota shouldn't take action until the federal government weighs in on their safety and sets regulations.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed a ban prohibiting the sale and distribution of children's products and upholstered residential furniture that contains more than a certain amount of four flame-retardant chemicals. The bill was watered down from its original form, which sought to ban 10 retardants. 

Among those lobbying hardest for the bill were firefighters worried about what the chemicals are doing to their health.

"Nobody understood why firefighters would be against flame retardants. It didn't make sense to most people," said Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Firefighters. He was among several firefighters and advocates who testified before the Legislature as it considered the 2015 bill.

Parsons said flame retardants really aren't effective at stopping fires. And when they burn, they produce furans and dioxins, which are known carcinogens, he said.

Steve Shapira, Susan Shaw, Chris Parsons
Capt. Steve Shapira, left, researcher Susan Shaw, center, and Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, right, testified in favor of a bill to ban certain flame-retardant chemicals in furniture and children's products.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2015

Firefighters are exposed to those cancer-causing chemicals when they inhale them or absorb them through their skin when they're fighting a fire. Studies have shown firefighters have a 14 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than the general population.

This year, Parsons and other advocates are trying again: this time, they're pushing a bill that would phase out the use of a whole class of flame-retardant chemicals. 

The bill's House author, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, said flame retardants were first put into couches and mattresses decades ago, when more people smoked in their homes — and sometimes fell asleep with a lit cigarette.

"What we found over time is that the the chemicals actually do very little to increase the length of time you have to get out of your home in a fire," said Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville.

The chemicals can get into dust in a home, where young children may be crawling on the floor, she said. Studies have linked flame-retardant chemicals to health problems in humans and animals, including developmental and reproductive issues. 

"There really isn't a great benefit in having those chemicals in the things that are in our homes and the things our kids put in their mouths and the things that we're exposed to," Becker-Finn said.

The bill would ban in Minnesota the manufacture, sale or distribution of children's products, fabrics or furniture containing certain flame-retardant chemicals above a specified level. 

It also would restrict the use of firefighting foam that contains perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS. Those chemicals have been showing up in drinking water supplies near military bases and airports, where the foam is used in training. The city of Bemidji recently dug a new city well because of PFAS contamination from its airport.

Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, is a retired firefighter and the author of the Senate version of the bill. He sponsored the 2015 bill while a member of the House.

Howe said he wants to see the bill pass this year, but so far, it hasn't gotten a Senate committee hearing, which it needs to advance. Howe said he can't get a hearing on it without agreement from the chemical manufacturing industry. So far, that hasn't happened. 

Tony Kwilas testified before a House committee last month representing the American Chemistry Council. He argued that flame retardants do play a role in fire safety.

"Flame retardants help prevent fires from starting, they slow the spread of some initial fires and they reduce the intensity of fires once they've started," Kwilas said. He said any decision on regulations should be made on a federal level, rather than state by state. 

But environmental advocates like Jenna Grove of Clean Water Action argue the federal government has been slow to act. 

"It's just a no-brainer that we would not wait any longer to prohibit people from putting these chemicals in products," Grove said.

In 2017, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Administration granted a petition to start working on a rule regulating flame retardants. In the meantime, other states, including California, Rhode Island and Maine, have enacted their own bans.