Kaiser Permanente banning PU flame retardant from furniture buys

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WASHINGTON — The largest nonprofit health management organization in the United States announced June 3 it will stop buying furniture made with polyurethane that contains flame retardants.

Kaiser Permanente intends to avoid purchasing products that contain any type of chemical flame retardant, including Firemaster 550 and others that remain federally approved for use out of concern for exposing patients and clients to increasing levels of potentially harmful or toxic chemicals in the environment.

Kaiser spends about $30 million each year furnishing its 38 hospitals and 600 medical office buildings in eight states and the District of Columbia.

“Our mission is the health of our patients and of our communities … and that mission includes paying attention to pollutants that can cause illness,” Kathy Gerwig, vice president and environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser, said during a call with reporters June 3. “We are the first health care system to make this change,” she added, “but we expect many more announcements to be forthcoming.”

The company says it is working with its furniture manufacturers to meet the revised standards, and expects to see flame retardant-free furnishings in its hospitals over the next one to three years.

“Kaiser Permanente is creating national momentum in the health care sector for abandoning flame retardant chemicals in exchange for safer alternatives,” said Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, in a news release. “The Healthier Hospitals Initiative is working with 1,000 hospitals across the country to protect public health and prevent disease through implementing sustainability strategies. We will utilize this broad hospital network to drive toxic flame retardants out of healthcare and create the demand for their phase out from our schools and homes as well.”

Kaiser has already used its high profile and significant buying power to lead the way on other, smaller materials selection changes, including encouraging a move away from vinyl, carpets that include PVC and other “chemicals of concern” and heavy metals.

“Kaiser continues to lead the way in putting its money behind its commitments to provide a safe environment for its customers and workers,” said Andy Igrejas, director of advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families said. “This policy is broad enough, and Kaiser is big enough, that this decision will have a positive impact on public health and the marketplace.”

The Kaiser by decision to move away from furniture with flame retardant comes following the January implementation of a California law eliminating requirements that manufacturers add flame retardants to upholstered furniture. A state law from the 1970s required the chemicals in an effort to stop cigarette fires, and the California legal standard quickly became a de facto national standard for manufacturers. But recent studies have linked flame retardant exposure to cancer, reproductive disorders and developmental delays in children.

The change in California law is being disputed, however. Flame retardant-maker Chemtura Corp. filed a suit against the state of California, in an effort to bring back the open-flame testing standard that led to the use of the chemicals in the first place. 

But the federal government is already rethinking its stance on flame retardants and taking a closer look at their possibly toxicity.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft rule last fall, looking for safer alternatives to the flame retardant chemical hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) in polystyrene building insulation due to its “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic characteristics,” the agency said.

HBCD was one of five flame retardants commonly used in the plastics industry that EPA planned to scrutinize starting in 2013, under a “full risk assessment” plan that usually takes a year or more.