PORTLAND, Maine — Firefighters and national chemical safety groups said they hope the nation follows Maine’s lead in passing a tough flame retardants law that the chemical industry lobbied against.
Lawmakers on Wednesday overrode Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a law supporters say will reduce firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens. Starting in 2019, Maine will prohibit the sale of new upholstered furniture made with materials that contain more than 1 percent of a flame-retardant chemical.
The restrictions don’t apply to furniture used in schools, jails and hospitals; it instead goes through safety tests. The law uses about $165,000 from the state’s medical marijuana fund to hire an environmental specialist for two years to monitor furniture sales.
A decade ago, Maine banned some flame retardants, but some firefighters say that law was insufficient to protect them from newer substitutes. Household furniture can meet safety standards without such chemicals, and smoke detectors and sprinklers — not fire retardants — save lives, said Portland Fire Capt. Mike Nixon.
He said fire gear companies are beginning to roll out suits that keep retardants from coming into contact with skin, but added, “there’s still nothing perfect out there.”
Nixon said he was diagnosed with late stage melanoma in 2012 when he was 41 and later received two surgeries and 11 months of chemotherapy. He can’t say exactly what led to his diagnosis, though a 2006 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine review of 32 studies suggested a possible increased likelihood of skin cancer for firefighters.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm, called Maine’s law the toughest in the nation at a time when cancer has become the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for professional firefighters.
“The Maine ban tells the chemical industry to give up its futile attempt to weaken national protections,” Belliveau said.
A dozen states regulate flame retardants in consumer products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Maine’s bill received plenty of pushback at a February hearing, where a state Department of Environmental Protection representative said the ban could endanger residents and burden regulators.
Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance, said the group is “disappointed” in a vote that could “remove a critical layer of fire protection and could increase the vulnerability of Mainers when fires occur.”
“We will continue to work with the legislature to try to effect change that will result in Mainers having access to the best available protection when fires occur,” Goodman said.