After an emotionally charged debate, the House on Friday passed a measure that would phase out the use of some fireproofing chemicals in...

Share story

OLYMPIA — After an emotionally charged debate, the House on Friday passed a measure that would phase out the use of some fireproofing chemicals in televisions, computers and upholstered furniture as long as safer alternatives are available.

Supporters of the bill said it was an important step in improving the health of the environment and of people, but opponents expressed concerns about fire safety.

The measure, which is supported by Gov. Christine Gregoire and the state Department of Ecology, passed on a 71-24 vote, with three lawmakers excused. It now heads to the Senate, which is considering its own measure.

“If we rush into this too fast and too furious we could be responsible for some devastating fires in the near future, and that worries me,” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee.

But the bill’s supporters said safety would not be sacrificed and noted that the bill is supported by the state fire marshal and the state associations of fire chiefs and firefighters.

“Some would like to lead you to believe that this is a tradeoff between fire safety and toxicity. It is not,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, main sponsor of the House measure. “I would never introduce legislation that puts our children at risk.”

The measure prohibits the manufacture, sale or distribution of most items containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers, commonly known as PBDEs. Two forms of PBDEs, penta and octa, are no longer produced in this country because U.S. manufacturers voluntarily stopped production in 2004, making deca the most commonly used form. Its largest use is in the black plastic casings of TVs.

The measure before the Legislature focuses on deca, which Ecology Director Jay Manning says has been found in people, salmon, seals and orcas.

Toxic flame retardants are “a poison and they’re seeping into our soil, into our drinking water, into our homes and into our bodies,” Hunter said. “And more importantly they’re seeping into our children.”

Under the measure, after Jan. 1, 2008, mattresses with deca would be banned, and the date for banning the substance in residential upholstered furniture, televisions or computers with electronic enclosures would be Jan. 1, 2011.

There would be some exemptions, including the sale of used cars made before Jan. 1, 2008, that have parts containing PBDEs, safety systems required by the Federal Aviation Administration and medical devices.

The Department of Ecology and the Department of Health would have to review alternatives to deca-BDE products, consulting with a fire-safety committee that would include the state’s director of fire protection and the executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs. By Dec. 15, 2008, the two agencies would have to report to the Legislature on the availability of alternatives to the compound.

Opponents expressed concern that the alternatives may fall short.

“Are they as effective, are they as good as preventing fires, or slowing fires?” asked Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside. “Alternatives should be better. We should not be taking action to ban one material for something that is less than the material that we replace.”

Gregoire has made the ban a priority as part of her plan to clean up Puget Sound by 2020.

“It’s a huge step forward for the environment; it’s a huge step forward for human health,” said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council.

While other states have approved laws to ban or phase out the use of penta- and octa-BDEs, no other state has banned all forms of PBDEs like Washington wants to do, said John Kyte, North American program director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an international industry group.

“I do think it goes too far,” he said. “Deca is not posing any sort of human health or environmental concern in the state of Washington. It is not toxic. It is the most tested and analyzed flame retardant in the world.”

Some lawmakers agreed.

“This bill does not make the environment any safer, it does not make one child any safer,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger. “It sends a purely political statement.”