As Congress considers an overhaul of toxic chemical regulations, a new analysis has brought the issue close to home — perhaps a little too close for comfort.
The Environmental Defense Fund recently analyzed six couches from each of the congressional office buildings and found three contained a toxic flame-retardant chemical known as TDCPP. The chemical can be found on the California Environmental Protection Agency's list of carcinogens. The analysis could cause some concern around the Capitol — particularly among members of the "Couch Caucus ," who sleep in their offices. Advocates working to overhaul chemical safety regulations hope it pushes lawmakers to act.
"It’s crazy to think that there are toxic chemicals in the very furniture we’re sitting on while working to update America’s chemical safety law,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement. A couch from his office in the Hart Senate Office Building tested positive for TDCPP, along with couches from the Rayburn and Cannon House Office Buildings.
The EDF-secured nickel-sized samples of foam from the couch cushions of six individual offices. The samples were then sent to Duke University's Superfund Research Center, which conducts free analyses of furniture foam, and three of the six samples tested positive for TDCPP.
The couches in the study are a small sample size for the hundreds of offices on Capitol Hill. But the EDF noted in a statement about the analysis that congressional furniture "remains in use for many years" and "the varying results may be due to differing ages of the furniture."
TDCPP, also known as chlorinated tris, was used in children's pajamas in the 1970s, but manufacturers stopped using the chemical when consumers became concerned about its harmful effects.
More recently, it has been used as a flame retardant in couch cushions. Researchers found in 2012 that more than 85 percent of couches contain chemical flame retardants, and 41 percent used TDCPP. Researchers have found these chemicals are not bound to the foam and can accumulate in dust, increasing the risk of human exposure.
“Frankly, I am not surprised. These chemicals are ubiquitous and, until recently, impossible to avoid," said House Energy and Commerce ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., a proponent of updating chemical regulations. "Even those who know the risks of chemicals in consumer products and work to avoid them often can’t protect themselves. This is exactly why it is so important to ensure that the House’s [Toxic Substances Control Act] reform becomes law."
Pallone is a co-sponsor of legislation by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. — the TSCA Modernization Act — which passed the House 398-1 in June. Advocates hope the recent study will push the Senate to act.
“Members of Congress are coming into daily contact with such chemicals even as we and others press them to protect the public," said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the EDF. "It’s just more proof that there is no safe place from toxic chemicals until our chemical safety law is brought into the 21st century.”
Currently, chemicals in consumer products are not required to undergo a safety assessment. But Udall and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., are hoping to change that with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which they introduced in March. In conjunction with the House measure, the Senate bill, which is named after the late New Jersey Democratic senator, would be the first major changes to chemical regulations in nearly 40 years.
The Udall-Vitter bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct safety reviews of current and new chemicals in the marketplace and would make a number of other updates, including barring the EPA from considering cost in its safety reviews. The senators are hopeful their chamber will take up the Lautenberg bill before leaving for August recess.
"We're still having conversations with leadership about it, and we're very hopeful that the Senate will take up TSCA reform before the August break," said Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm. "There's a lot of interest in getting to the Lautenberg bill soon because it has really strong bipartisan support; we expect it would pass the Senate easily, and we're really encouraged by how much energy there is for reforming our broken chemical safety laws."
Talhelm said Udall's staff was concerned to learn their office couch contained a toxic chemical they are attempting to combat. "The staff here in particular, and Sen. Udall, too, have been dealing with the issue for a really long time and this really underscores the importance of passing chemical safety reform," Talhelm said.
Though the lawmakers are focused on federal chemical regulations, the study also raised questions about the use of flame retardant chemicals in the Capitol complex. A spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, which handles Senate furniture, declined to comment. The office for the chief administrative officer, which oversees House furniture, did not respond to requests for comment.
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