Anchorage Assembly considers ban of potentially dangerous fire retardant chemicals

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Products meant originally to increase escape time during residential fires have been associated with adverse health affects, and the Anchorage Assembly is working to ban them for good.

Flame retardant chemicals, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, have been used since the 1970's in home furnishings, electronics, construction materials, and more. In the last decade or so, the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences has studied these chemicals because of their abundance in the environment and their impact on human health -- finding growing evidence that the chemicals affect the endocrine, immune, reproductive, and nervous systems. Some studies have shown long-term exposure can even lead to cancer.

For these reasons, the Anchorage Fire Department, Health Department, Assembly, and grassroots organizations are working to ban the sale and manufacture of the chemicals. AFD Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick remembers two prominent figures in the fire service family who are believed to have died after contracting cancer from long-term exposure to toxic gases while in the line of duty.

"In Alaska, we have two significant cases: Andy Mullen, we lost not very long ago to cancer directly related to his work with the fire Department. And in the Fairbanks area we lost Chief Phil Rounds — same thing," Hettrick said. "Both of them were a big loss to the fire service family. Andy, because Andy was such a great guy and he contributed so much to this community, and Chief Rounds, who was a mentor to many of us."

Anchorage Assembly Chair Eric Croft sponsored the ordinance proposing the ban of flame retardant chemicals by 2020, which will be introduced for public testimony at Tuesday's regular Assembly meeting.

“We know that it increases risk. And we know for some firefighters, that have died because of cancer related to their firefighting work. And we know having these in homes when there’s a fire poses a big risk to firefighters," Croft said. "So it’s a risk to our children who are crawling around on it, it’s a risk to our firefighters, and it’s a risk we can eliminate. We don’t need it.”

Croft says the proposed ban has encountered opposition from a group representing the chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council.

“The American Chemistry Counsel, chemical industry, continues to oppose any even responsible legislation. So that was kind of sad," Croft said. "But I think we’re going to make a local decision. I’m not going to make a decision on my constituents’ behalf based on what a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council says.”

The Alaska Community Action on Toxics is no stranger to these lobbying efforts, says Executive Director Pamela Miller, who has been working to ban these chemicals in Alaska for over a decade.

“They have the resources, and the people, and the money to go and oppose these types of public policies anywhere they appear, whether it’s Massachusetts, or California, or Alaska," Miler said. "They are there to oppose these types of measures, even though we know that phasing out these harmful flame retardants is important to protect public health.”

The North American Flame Retardant Alliance, NAFRA, an extension of the American Chemistry Council, released a statement outlining their opposition to the Assembly ordinance:

"Flame retardants are an important component of a comprehensive approach to fire safety. They can provide an important layer of fire protection by stopping or delaying the onset or spread of fires. Finally, (the ordinance) will have the unintended consequence of putting Anchorage’s retailers and small businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The ordinance would impose a broad range of restrictions and obligations that are significantly different and inconsistent with existing state and federal regulations contributing to an even further fragmented regulatory environment for business."

Jodie Hettrick is a career firefighter, with over 30 years in service to her community. She says firefighters are comfortable taking risks to keep people safe so that others don't have to. It's upsetting to her that the science is there showing a correlation between exposure to certain flame retardant chemicals and impacts on health, but the chemical industry still follows a business-first model.

"It’s an expectation that you would hope that corporate America would be looking out for the best interest of the public that they serve, but they follow a different model than we do in public service," she said. "That’s not their motto is public service and safety. If it was, maybe they would look at the science and we would have some different products.”

The ordinance will be made open for public testimony at the Assembly Chambers at Loussac Library in Anchorage Tues., February 12, starting at 6:00 p.m.