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Playing Politics with Science and Safety

John Kabateck
California Executive Director, National Federation of Independent Business

Well, that didn’t take long. Only three months after the ink was dry on a new program that directs state scientists to evaluate chemicals used in consumer products, bureaucrats and some politicians like San Francisco Senator Mark Leno have decided to change the rules midstream. Once again, politics trumps policy and it’s precisely the result the National Federation of Independent Business feared would happen – set up a process to regulate businesses and their products, and then bypass that system to respond to political pressure.

The issue here is SB 1019, a bill that requires furniture manufacturers to label whether their product is treated with flame retardant materials. Sounds simple, so what’s wrong with the proposed label? It is a sleight-of-hand method by activist groups to circumvent the scientific review process and advance an agenda designed to intimidate furniture makers so they’ll stop using these chemicals. These groups allege harmful effects, but are unwilling to run these chemicals and products through a scientific evaluation because it’s much easier to get what you want when you ignore science altogether.

We cannot forget about the fire safety aspect of this issue, either. Every day we are reminded of the risk of fire. Homes are destroyed, people are injured, and sometimes the most vulnerable, children and the elderly, lose their lives. When bureaucrats decided that furniture sold in the state no longer had to be tested for resistance to open flame ignition sources like candles and matches, fire safety experts from the National Fire Protection Association, Underwriters Laboratories, and the California Conference of Arson Investigators said that might not be such a good idea. But the experts were ignored.

Flame retardant methods, including both chemical and non-chemical applications, help to prevent or slow an open-flame fire. In many cases, the few extra minutes these fire safety methods provide can be the difference between escape and injury or death.

Despite these facts and opinions from experts, Senator Leno’s goal is to force manufacturers to bow to the demands of groups that want to eliminate all chemicals, regardless of their benefit to society.

NFIB is also concerned about the precedent SB 1019 sets for opening the door for warning labels on almost every product you find at the store, particularly when good science is not the basis for such warnings. Proponents of the bill have claimed increased cancer risk from exposure to certain types of flame retardants, but products with such chemicals are already required to post a Proposition 65 warning on their labels. SB 1019 adds another generic warning in addition to the one required under Prop. 65, but includes all flame retardants, even those certified by the U.S. EPA.

SB 1019 will be a gold mine for trial lawyers acting in the “public interest” as they rush to file lawsuits against struggling small businesses under the new law. Furniture makers will be pushed into an unenviable decision that requires them to choose between abandoning cost-effective fire prevention methods and the liability risk such action incurs, or using those proven safety methods but being forced to warn consumers about a theoretical health risk to purchasing their products. This “Catch 22” is precisely the reason that science, and not politics, should decide the fate of products.

With a bill to require warning labels on sweetened beverages, we are rapidly becoming a society blind to meaningless warnings. Prop. 65 was passed by the voters to protect against real threats, and it is imperative that honest science guides consumer warnings. Otherwise, businesses will suffer for no real public benefit.

SB 1019 puts politics before science, imposes new mandates on businesses, ignores important fire safety concerns and the only winners are environmental activists and trial lawyers. Other than that, it seems like great public policy. Perhaps I can run it by the folks at Toyota to get their thoughts.

John Kabateck is the Executive Director, of the National Federation of Independent Business/California.

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