Hospital Giant to Shed Flame Retardants
Citing health concerns, one of the nation’s largest health-management organizations will phase out furniture containing toxic flame-retardants at its hundreds of facilities.
Kaiser Permanente—an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit that spends roughly $30 million a year furnishing its hospitals, medical offices and other buildings—announced its new commitment June 3.
More than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia could be impacted by the plan, Kaiser Permanente said.
The health system is the first in the U.S. to initiate a phase-out of furniture treated with flame retardants, but it may not be the last, experts say.
Critics argue that Kaiser's decision may compromise fire safety in its facilities.
Recent Standard Updates
The announcement comes on the heels of a recent move by California to update its flammability standard for upholstered furniture.
The new regulation does not ban flame retardants. However, it states that furniture manufacturers can meet flammability standards (withstanding smolders) without the use of fire-retardant chemicals.
Studies have shown the chemicals offer no significant benefit in the fire safety performance of furniture, the healthcare system said.
More than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia could be impacted by the healthcare organization's pledge.
The law, TB117-2013, is effective this year and will be mandatory by January 2015.
California lawmakers are also taking a closer look at the use of flame retardants in building foam insulation. AB 127 (Fire safety: fire retardants: building insulation), signed into law Oct. 5, directs California’s Fire Marshal and Building Standards Commission to reassess flammability regulations for building insulation.
“Chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, among other health problems,” Kaiser said.
Concern over the health impacts to children, pregnant women and the general public has been mounting in recent years, as scientific studies have documented the dangers of exposure, Kaiser noted.
A recent study conducted by the University of California-Berkeley found that the presence of hazardous flame-retardant chemicals, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and non-PBDE flame retardants, was widespread in child-care facilities.
“Where there is credible evidence that a material might result in harm to the environment or public health, we work to replace it with safer alternatives,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente’s environmental stewardship officer.
The healthcare system says it is working with furniture manufacturers to meet California's revised standard, and it expects to see safer furnishings in its hospitals within one to three years.
In a statement responding to Kaiser’s announcement, the American Chemistry Council warns that the health-care system may be compromising occupant safety in its facilities.
“It is unfortunate that Kaiser Permanente could be sacrificing fire safety when flame retardants, like all chemicals, are already subject to review by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies in the U.S. and around the world,” said the ACC’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance.
Between 2006 and 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 17 fires per day (6,240 a year) in health-care facilities, 23 percent of which were hospitals or hospices, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“Industry continues to innovate to help meet the fire safety needs of modern life.”
The ACC added that “flame retardants are an important tool in the fire safety tool box that help save lives.”
Citing the National Fire Protection Association, the ACC said that "between 2006-2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 17 fires per day (6,240 a year) in health care facilities, 23 percent of which were hospitals or hospices.”
“Obviously, it’s important that health centers use all of the necessary fire tools, including flame retardants, to help protect their staff and patients from the devastation of fire.”
Making Health Care Healthier
Still, experts applaud Kaiser in leading industry in sourcing safer alternatives to products used in health-care settings.
“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.
“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 health care and create the demand for their phase-out from our schools and homes as well.”
Kaiser has also encouraged manufacturers to produce PVC-free carpets and to develop fabrics that eliminate chemicals of concern, including volatile organic compounds, vinyl and heavy metals, according to the organization.
Also, since 2008, the health-care organization has followed a directive that paints and coatings used in their facilities must be zero- or low-VOC.
Kaiser officials said Wednesday (June 11) that they currently have no across-the-board standard with regard to building insulation products, though they avoid the use of spray polyurethane foam building insulation.
They are performing research to determine whether various building insulation products used in their buildings include chemicals of concern. The officials anticipate that the research could inform a national directive in the future, which, like the furniture pledge, would apply to all Kaiser Permanente facilities.