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Flame retardant ban becomes state law

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The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul on Thursday, May 23, 2019.
The sun breaks through the clouds over the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul on Thursday. Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill into law on Wednesday that bans certain flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses and other household products
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill into law on Wednesday that bans certain flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses and other household products, expanding on previous efforts to protect firefighters and children from exposure to toxins that pose a health risk. 

The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the final bill, despite sometimes contentious debate during committee hearings. It bans the manufacture and sale of mattresses, children's products, upholstered furniture and residential textiles, such as window coverings, that contain certain flame retardants.

"What we've learned over time is that those chemicals actually don't do much as far as fire protection," said the bill's House author, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville. "But what we do know now is when they burn, they release toxins into the air and then firefighters are really exposed to those chemicals."

Among those lobbying for the bill's passage were firefighters, who are worried what the chemicals are doing to their health. Studies have shown firefighters have a 14 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than the general population.

Chris Parsons, president of Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, said they didn't get everything they wanted in the bill, which was opposed by chemical manufacturers. But he added, "We are very pleased with what we got."

"We feel like that we are moving the ball down the field toward the goal of making the workplace for firefighters as safe as it can possibly be, while at the same time protecting kids and the public from these toxic flame retardants," Parsons said.

The new law covers products that contain organohalogen flame-retardant chemicals, which contain at least one halogen element bonded to carbon.

Previous attempts at regulating flame retardants listed specific chemicals, Becker-Finn said. The problem with that approach, she said, is that manufacturers can change the formula slightly and still comply with the law.

Chemical manufacturers opposed the bill, saying the flame retardants are important for suppressing fires. They argued that Minnesota shouldn't take action until the federal government weighs in on their safety and sets regulations.

One of the changes made to get the bill passed, Parson said, was to limit it to residential furniture. The original bill included office and hotel furniture as well.

Another compromise pushed the bill's effective date back to give manufacturers and fire departments more time to make changes. 

The final version prohibits manufacturers from selling or distributing mattresses, children's products, upholstered furniture and residential textiles containing more than 1,000 parts per million of the chemicals beginning in July 2021. 

Retailers are prohibited from selling those products beginning in July 2022, although selling used products containing the restricted chemicals is still allowed.

The new law also bans the use of class B firefighting foam that contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — for testing or training starting July 2020, unless it's required by federal law. 

PFAS chemicals have been found to contaminate drinking water, including in Bemidji, Minn., where the city had to dig a new well because of PFAS contamination from its airport.

The class B foams would not be banned for use in emergency firefighting or fire prevention. They are considered effective at putting out oil fires at airports and military bases, although many airports have phased out their use in training.

The law also requires that beginning July 1, 2020, any release of class B firefighting foam containing PFAS must be reported to the state's fire reporting system within 24 hours. Previously, those discharges weren't tracked, Parsons said.

Editor's note (May 24, 2019): Due to a production error, an earlier version of this story included a photograph not directly related to the story. It has been removed.