Picture this: In an attempt to shift the blame in deaths caused by house fires, Big Tobacco enlists firefighters and shoddy science to sway the public and politicians to help create fire-retardancy standards. Then the chemical industry sets up and funds a trade group that pays “concerned professionals” and “ordinary people” to champion its efforts under the guise of a “citizens organization.” One of the people it pays includes a doctor, the head of the American Burn Association, who testifies in front of state legislatures about babies killed due to a lack of fire retardants…only those babies don’t exist. To top it off, the flame retardants don’t work as promised anyway, and the government is unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
That’s not the stuff of a paranoid conspiracy theory or a John Grisham novel. It’s from an investigative series by the Chicago Tribune that examines the origin and future of flame-retardancy standards in America.
I’ll briefly summarize the report here, but read it yourself for the full details. It’s an engrossing—and largely appalling—read.
Several decades ago, the tobacco industry was facing a public relations nightmare—not due to cancer deaths, but due to people dying in house fires caused by cigarettes. Rather than taking the heat or creating safer cigarettes, the industry decided to shift the blame to the furnishings that were catching on fire.
Obviously, the tobacco companies wouldn’t have much credibility spreading the idea that it was the furniture’s fault, so the industry decided to woo firefighters and fire safety organizations to their cause through grants and perks. A former tobacco industry executive came up with the idea of creating a firefighting organization to help their efforts. Thus, the National Association of State Fire Marshals was born.
It’s not quite clear to what extent the fire marshals realized they were pawns in a game to get people to support adding fire-resistant chemicals to furniture. Some of them thought the head of their association was a volunteer, not aware that he was being paid by tobacco companies. Regardless, the association worked to promote fire-retardant furniture (and maybe even genuinely believed in the cause) even as other firefighters expressed concerns about effectiveness and the more-toxic smoke produced when these products burn.
Oh, and that tobacco executive? He later went on to serve as a lobbyist for the chemical industry.
But hey, at least we’re protected, right?
Maybe not. Government studies have found no meaningful difference between household items treated with chemicals and those without. In addition, both produced a similar amount of smoke, which (as opposed to being engulfed in flames) is what usually causes deaths in fires.
The statistic used by the chemical industry, the State Fire Marshals, and others to tout the efficacy of the chemicals (that it gives people 15 times longer to escape a fire) comes from a study in which scientists set fire to two identical rooms—one laden with fire retardants, and the other not. It did take the treated room longer to burn. Except the scientist who authored the study said that the amount of chemicals used in that experiment were at levels far higher than what could reasonably (in terms of cost, if nothing else) be found in household goods. The amount they used is similar to what would be used in space missions or military applications. His study also found that the amount used in consumer goods provides no additional protection. In fact, he is concerned about the health risks from the chemicals.
The other study used to promote the importance of fire retardants comes from a very small, very obscure study conducted 15 years ago in Sweden. It involved eight television fires. People in the chemical industry used that number to extrapolate the number of TV fires in all of Europe, compared that number to the rate in the US, and determined that because the rate was lower in the US, it must be because US TVs contain flame-retardants and European ones usually don’t. That’s a big leap to arrive at from eight TV fires.
To further complicate matters, the EPA is largely ineffective when it comes to determining the safety of chemicals. They can order tests, but the tests are done by the manufacturers and don’t have to be complete before a chemical goes to market. Once on the market, the federal standards for pulling a chemical are so strict that even asbestos couldn’t be banned.
Tests have shown that one-fifth of baby products contain a chemical called Firemaster 550. The chemical was touted as safe, but even EPA scientists had doubts. Today, the chemical is found in houshold dust around the country—it doesn’t stay in place as the manufacturer claimed. Now the EPA has designated the chemical for “high-priority” review due to potential health concerns.
Even more baby products contain a chemical known as “chlorinated tris,” which was removed from pajamas 30 years ago after it was linked to causing cancer. California recently added chlorinated tris to its list of Proposition 65 chemicals, those known to cause cancer.
What does this all mean, and where do we go from here, especially in terms of children’s products?
Well, products sold in California that contain Prop 65 chemicals will have to bear a label saying they contain chemicals known by the state to cause cancer. Because baby-product manufacturers probably won’t want that label on their products, they’ll likely stop using chlorinated tris.
Graco recently announced that it would stop using the four most toxic chemicals, including chlorinated tris and Firemaster 550. Britax has made a similar commitment. Cybex and Orbit claim to already use less-toxic chemicals in their car seats, and other companies are likely to follow suit.
As for the industry as a whole, because these chemicals are harder to ban at a federal level, many state legislatures are looking into bans of their own.
Efforts are underway in California to change the state’s fire-retardancy standard, which is the benchmark used by several industries nationwide. The new standard would require fabric (not the foam contained within) to resist a cigarette-like smoldering, not the candle-like flame currently used. Many fabrics in use already meet that standard without the use of chemicals. (Experts say that preventing the fire in the first place is what’s most important–once fabric is on fire, it engulfs foam despite the existence of chemicals.)
Efforts have been introduced in the US Senate to require more tests and reporting, and to give the federal government stronger powers to remove unsafe chemicals.
What can be done in the meantime? If you’re concerned (That couch you’re sitting on? It might have up to two POUNDS of fire-retardant chemicals in it.), the best thing to do is to avoid household dust, which contains the chemicals, too. Vacuum often, especially if you have young children who play on the floor. Consider going to hard flooring rather than carpets which can trap dust and whose padding is often made with recycled furniture-foam, which, of course, is treated with chemicals.
As for car seats, this is a great article on “detoxing” your seat. Tips include vacuuming the seat and letting the car air out when it’s hot. (Remember that your car interior has to meet the same standards as your car seat, so might as well vacuum the rest of the car while you’re at it.)
As always, it’s best to put effort into things we can control. Don’t skip the car seat because you’re worried about chemicals. Chemicals may be a risk, but car crashes are an even greater one.