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Op-Ed

We must reduce the dangers of fire-retardant chemicals

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Our brave firefighters risk their lives every day to keep our communities safe. The least we can do is protect them from dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals.

The same goes for our children. We must do all we can to keep them healthy and foster their growth. Ensuring that they don’t come into contact with hazardous chemicals that can cause serious intellectual and developmental disabilities is a no-brainer.

That’s why I sponsored the Firefighter and Family Protection Act, a bill that would ban toxic flame retardants in mattresses, furniture and electronic enclosures in New York. Our first responders and children are simply too valuable to be sold out to chemical companies.

The statistics are scary: a study by New York University found that exposure to flame retardants among kids resulted in serious IQ loss over a 15-year period. Worse, according to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, the study’s lead researcher, once a child is exposed to these toxins, the damage is irreversible.

Flame retardants evaporate from products such as furniture and mattresses, and attach to dust participles. When children play on the floor — or simply breathe in their homes — they are in jeopardy of being exposed. That is not a risk worth taking. We cannot gamble with our kids’ health.

As if flame retardants aren’t toxic enough, during a fire, these chemicals become even more dangerous, combining with other substances to produce potent compounds. They can seep into firefighters’ protective gear and penetrate their breathing masks, putting our first responders at grave risk of contracting cancer.

And the hazards of flame retardants for firefighters don’t end when they make their way out of burning buildings. These toxic chemicals stick to firefighters’ gear and come back with them to their fire stations and homes, exponentially increasing the potential for exposure.

Cancer poses a serious threat to our firefighters, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all line-of-duty deaths between 2002 and 2019. Firefighters have contracted cancer at an alarming rate, and face a 14 percent greater risk of death than the general public. Studies have found that firefighters face double the danger of developing mesothelioma than civilians. That’s why unions representing volunteer and New York City firefighters alike have endorsed my bill. Our firefighters are willing to risk their lives and to have our backs day in and day out. It’s time we had theirs, and took this small step to keep them safe.

Flame retardants are harmful to our environment as well. Electronic disposal is one of the most rapidly growing waste problems in the world, growing by 21 percent in just five years. When e-waste containing flame retardants is sent to a landfill, incinerated or even recycled, it creates a serious hazard as these chemicals escape into our water and soil.

What’s more, flame retardants do little to actually stop fires and stem their spread. After conducting rigorous experiments, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that “fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significantly greater level of open flame safety than did the untreated foams.” There is no good reason why these potentially cancer-causing chemicals should continue to be added to products in our state.

Corporate chemical manufacturers and their lobbyists have employed dubious tactics — including fabricating quotes in news stories — in a brazen effort to protect their products at the expense of our children and first responders. This shows their desperation and the growing strength of our efforts.

My bill would prohibit the sale of furniture, mattresses and electronic enclosures that contain flame retardants. It would also ban custom upholsterers from adding retardants to existing products. By stemming these likely carcinogens, we can make significant strides in protecting the health and safety of our children and firefighters.

Thirteen other states have already taken similar actions to protect their citizens, as has the European Union. It is time we acted, too. With just a few days left in the legislative session in Albany, it is imperative that the Legislature act on this critical bill to protect the health of our kids and first responders. They deserve nothing less.

Todd Kaminsky represents New York’s 9th Senate District and chairs the State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee.