BOSTON — When a room goes up in flames, furniture burns and so do the flame retardants covering the furniture, releasing chemicals that firefighters breathe in.
In the interest of fire safety, lawmakers at the Statehouse have filed a controversial bill to prohibit the use of certain chemical flame retardants.
Last year, the bill got to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker, who pocket vetoed it at the end of the two-year session, saying he was concerned by the short implementation date and the ban on the use of flame retardants in car seats and mattresses.
The current bill, H.3500, was filed by state Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, and co-sponsored by state Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, who hopes to send it early enough to Baker's desk to avoid a pocket veto.
"I think this time we'll send it to him early enough in the session that even if the governor chooses to veto again, we'll be able to override it," Mark said. "It's important to protect firefighters who are doing a job, they're risking their lives to save other people. They face problems down the road because they inhale something they dealt with while they were rescuing someone."
The 12,000 members of Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts support the bill, according to their president, Rich MacKinnon.
"The concern we have is that that is what is contributing to our high rate of cancer in firefighters," he said. "I attend all the funerals for the firefighters that died. A couple times last year we had upwards of three or four in one week for firefighters that have died of cancer. We just had one this week out of Springfield."
Flame retardants can be harmful to humans and because they don't easily break down can remain in the environment for years, according to the National Institutes of Health.
However, the bill has engendered some controversy. The Washington, D.C.-based group The American Chemistry Council mounted a campaign against the corresponding Senate bill, S.2338, which won unanimous approval in the Senate in September.
"The American Chemistry Council and North American Flame Retardant Alliance support strong fire protection interventions and regulations. Flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection that prevent ignition and stop fires. Used in many products these substances save lives and property," according to a statement from American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance. "Many parties have expressed concern about the proposed Massachusetts flame retardant legislation. We encourage the Legislature to work with all stakeholders and advance policy that enhances chemical safety without sacrificing product fire safety for the Commonwealth."
However, MacKinnon disagrees with the characterization of retardants as "an important layer of fire protection."
"That's not actually true," MacKinnon said. "The flame retardants do not stop the fire from spreading or have really any effect in the safety that they're supposed to have and there's proof to that. There have been studies because of the way that the construction is built today, the fire spread and the combustibility is faster than the products that were used in the past. A lot of it is because of the plastics and the other construction materials. It's a lot of the glue that they use as well."
The bill could also help more than just firefighter safety. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, mentioned it as one of her environmental priorities.
"The idea is that we think it's a good idea to have couches sprayed with these flame retardants because it makes the couch burn so much slower and can save a house from burning down or limit injury to people. Of course we want that," she said. "These fire retardants when they burn are very, very damaging and they have caused injury to firefighters."