The Maine Legislature are considering L.D. 182, a bill with the goal of eliminating the chemical treatment of furniture to prevent fires. What? Are the folks behind this bill against safety? Actually, no — just the opposite is true.

The history of this practice dates back to the 1960s, when chemical flame retardants were first invented for industrial use. Someone in California later had what seemed like a great idea. Since house fires were often triggered by cigarettes igniting furniture, couldn’t we treat household upholstery to slow down the burn? The chemical manufacturers helped promote the idea to the state legislature, and a bill passed that established “California standards” for furniture treatment, which ended up being used nationally, since California is such a big market. California, by the way, rescinded the bill about five years ago because of toxicity concerns.

The worst flame retardants — PDBEs — were voluntarily discontinued by the chemical industry around a decade ago. Multiple animal studies documented an association between exposure to these molecules and imbalance in the delicate regulation of both the sex hormone and thyroid systems. Human exposure was tied to pregnancy complications, birth defects, and lower IQ scores. Their chemical properties put them in the category of “endocrine disruptors” — able to interfere with the basic pathways in our cells that regulate body balance. Endocrine disruptors also are thought to be contributing to the obesity epidemic and the increase in type 2 diabetes.

The chemicals that have replaced PDBEs, unfortunately, have similar molecular structures and similar metabolites — and are associated with the same toxicities.

Fire retardants work by either inhibiting the process of oxidation chemically (remember: burning is oxidation) or by having the materials form a char, creating a physical block to burning. This all makes sense, perhaps, if a cigarette really is the source of ignition. If the fire starts in the home’s electrical system or stove, however, the addition of retardants delays the burning of the couch by 20 to 30 seconds, max. Tighter fabric weaves have the same effect.

It is remarkable how much of these chemicals are added to upholstery — up to 5 percent by weight. They are not chemically bound to the furniture component, and can “off-gas” and be inhaled, or migrate to the surrounding indoor environment and become part of house dust. Old furniture ends up in landfills, leading to dispersion of these materials in the outdoor environment. All of us have measurable amounts in our bodies. American levels are much higher than European, because we put so much more into our furniture than they do overseas.

Worldwide, more than 4 billion pounds are produced yearly, leading to substantial environmental contamination. Because these substances are “bio-accumulative,” they make their way into soils, then up the food chain with subsequent storage in animal tissues. Levels in breast milk have increased 100 fold since the 1970s. Even North American polar bears have measurable blood levels — with reproductive effects presenting another challenge to their survival on top of the disintegrating ice pack.

As a pediatrician, I am most concerned about their developmental impact on children, who are playing on the floor, more in contact with house dust, and mouthing their hands and toys. There is another group, however, who may be more at risk of toxicity than kids — our volunteer and professional firefighters. When burned, fire retardants tend to form dioxins, a class of compounds that are known potent carcinogens. One of the replacement chemicals is TRIS, which was removed from infant sleepwear decades ago because of cancer concerns. While our firefighters wear protective equipment, repeated exposures on the job are inevitable.

Firefighters feel that the 20- to 30-second delay to the time that the couch or mattress catches fire does little to help them save lives or property. At the February legislative hearing on L.D. 182, the head of the state firefighters’ organization described his experience in losing friends to cancer, and argued passionately in favor of passage of the bill. The bill itself is titled “An Act to Protect Firefighters…” — though pediatricians would not object to adding kids to that title.

Both organizations that I represent — the Maine Chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Academy of Pediatrics — would urge our legislators to support this bill. Flame retardants are like the lead we used to put in gasoline — an example of “better living through chemistry” gone awry. They provide little or no benefit, contaminate our environment, and cause substantial harm.

Sydney R. Sewall, M.D./MPH, has been a pediatrician in Augusta for more than 30 years. He lives in Hallowell.