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Thursday, May 31, 2012

What The Tobacco Lobby Has To Do With Flame Retardant Products

Government scientists found that chairs containing flame retardants, like the one being tested above, burn just as fast as identical chairs without them. (Consumer Products Safety Commission)

Government scientists found that chairs containing flame retardants, like the one being tested above, burn just as fast as identical chairs without them. (Consumer Products Safety Commission)

The debate over fire retardant chemicals has flared up again, prompted by a new investigative series in the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper investigated a decades-long campaign created jointly by the chemical and tobacco industries to introduce flame retardant chemicals in consumer products.

And the paper reported that flame retardants don’t necessarily save lives:

“We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection,” said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests at a laboratory outside Washington.

Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.

Many consumer groups are also investigating whether flame retardants are causing health problems, since the chemicals used in them have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and developmental problems.

The Tribune also found that Big Tobacco lobbied for flame retardants to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths.


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  • Yelram

    I smoke additive free tobacco hand rolled cigarettes, and they will go out typically in 20 seconds if I don’t continue drawing from it. So I am left to wonder why tobacco companies found it harder to just leave these chemicals out. I have read these chemicals were added to tobacco(or more often to the papers) to keep cigarettes burning down to the filter so that homeless won’t pick up butts off the street, thereby spreading communicable disease, but this seems like a silly justification. Perhaps your guest could address this.

    Thanks for your wonderful work!

    • Marie

      I’d like to add somewhere here that these cigarettes with flame retardants also fall apart very easily. I’ve never had such an issue before. I’m a very careful smoker and never smoke in the house but I do in my car. I’ve already made two burn holes in the apolstery of my new car from cigarettes falling apart !!!
      Wonder what they do to peoples homes besides those who are crazy enough to smoke in bed !?

  • heatherl

    I am so passionate about this topic, I’m glad that you had a piece about it.  When I was pregnant with twins a few years ago, I investigated the use of fire retardants and found a lot of literature that suggested links between the use of fire retardants and SIDS and other issues with health.  I figured that my kids would spend half their time in bed, so we ordered 100% organic mattresses for their cribs that use cotton and wool (wool is a natural fire retardant).  Ironically, they were from California!  Since then, we have also changed our mattress to a completely 100% organic mattress.  I believe that we are just starting to understand how chemicals that we put into our homes and products are harming us and altering our brains and bodies…

    • Anne

      Although organic may be better, I am sensitive to petroleum based chemicals, and have found it best to avoid cotton altogether. Many organic fabrics are still finished with chemicals that trigger a strong reaction in me, to the point that I now sleep in a hammock made of unprocessed, handloomed hemp. I was unable to find any organic pillows or mattresses that I could use, although it wasn’t for lack of looking. I’ve had better luck with organic wool than organic cotton.

  • Frederick John Kluth

    Many people die in fires from breathing toxic fumes.  Your story did not address whether the fire retardants produced toxic fumes.  This is a common problem with fire extinguishing chemicals and other chemicals used in the furnishing and decorating of homes.

  • Ted

    This is business as usual across the land.  Have a problem and you can create jobs  for whatever you wish.

    This reminds me of the Fire Safe Cigarettes which became the law of the land back in Jan. 2010. These fags are easily recognized as embeddedon the bar code are the letters “FSC”.
    Specifically the chemical used to extinguish these ciggies is ethyl vinyl acetate.
    EVA is basically a carpet glue component. Interesting that it can put out a smoke if say someone falls asleep in a bed or sofa or whatever from being wasted(possibly drunk). The result is that these cancer sticks self extinguish, thus you live another day to drag more of them. Over time you get lung cancer or whatever, go to the medical-industrial complex for help. Everybody has work.

    Add a chemical here and there and people have jobs.
    If there is a health or environmental  problem  with it, well create another job to research it to death. Thus we all have jobs even if what some of us do kills us.
    That’s capitalism.

  • Daniel

    It’s sad that the chemical companies can spend so much money to spin and bend the truth for profit but wouldn’t take that ill-spent money and feed fellow Americans. 

  • Stuart Fox

    I don’t understand why you keep saying “chemicals.” As far as I know, everything is made out of chemicals. Perhaps you should explain which chemicals and how they effect people.

  • Maryann

    I’ve been a professional upholsterer and custom window treatment fabricator for over 23 years and have noticed an increased use in fire retardants. Myself and colleagues are experiencing more side effects such as runny eyes, congestion, skin problems and it’s my opinion it’s from the chemicals in the processing. 

    My children were little when children’s sleepwear was required to be fire retardant. I made all their pj’s after that and felt bad for people who did not sew. I firmly believe the fire retardants cause far more problems and deaths than fires do.

  • Anne

    I’m glad this is getting attention. I had a baby just when these flame retardants were added to infant sleepwear in 1977. She got intractable rashes until I figured out to dress her in clothing that were free of them. About four years ago I finally figured out that I am sensitive to many petroleum based chemicals. My house is now free of pillows, mattresses, and couches. I can’t even have them in the house for my guests. Many health complaints I had, including rashes and insomnia, have vanished, now that I am very careful what chemicals I come into contact with. It is very difficult to avoid them all, but well worth the restrictions given how much better I feel.

  • WhatThePeopleThink

    Great story.  I live in Vermont and when my state was trying to ban some flame retardants, which by the way, the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont supported all the way to approval, the industry front group Citizens for Fire Safety made robo-calls to every home at dinner time and held a phony “virtual town meeting” where they made all sorts of false claims about halogenated flame retardants being safe and effective. I was completely appauled and called my attorney general to complain. How do they get access to the entire list of Vermont phone numbers, make these calls and then deliberately mis-represent the science? It’s outrageous!  Over and over they said, Call the Speaker of the Vermont House to complain about the bill (they gave his number over and over). So I did call him, right before I called the AG, to say THANK YOU for sticking up for people over corporate profits.    

  • http://www.flora.org/healthyottawa Richard Clarkson

    Very interesting! I had no idea that many organic fabrics are still finished with chemicals that may trigger a strong reaction. Surely, not everything is made out of chemicals!

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks to WBUR for covering this important story. I echo the concern about this  that so many other people have expressed in the comments. It’s time that we give up the myth that we are protected from toxic chemicals and demand government regulation. This is just one more story of why leaving the safety issues to industry just doesn’t cut it.

  • http://twitter.com/groovygreenlivi Lori Popkewitz Alper

    Thank you very much for providing coverage on such an important issue.  It’s clear that regulations are needed before products make it onto the store shelves. Unfortunately, there are story after story about the hazardous effects of toxic chemicals in our everyday products. It’s time for this to stop and for regulations such as the Safer Chemicals Act to take effect.

  • guest

    My daughter and I were part of an Environmental Working Group study that found that toddlers have significantly higher rates of PBDEs in their system than their mothers.  As a 3-year old, my daughter had 5-6 times the rate of fire retardant in her blood as I did.  I don’t know if PBDEs will harm her or other children, but PBDEs have been linked to health problems.  I believe we need to do a better job regulating chemicals in consumer products, following the example of countries that require chemicals to be proven safe before they are widely used.

  • Lu Ann

    I am very interested in this topic as the city of Boston and some surrounding cities require a code for office furniture that is even more toxic than CAL 117.  Even if buildings have quick release sprinklers, all office chairs must pass CAL 133. This requires not only a toxic foam but a barrier cloth that covers the foam before the fabric is applied . The Fire Department should be listening to your show!

  • Hazz Design

    As designers of retail upholstered furniture and the parents of two children, safety (including chemical load) is always predominate in our minds. We have sought alternative materials only to be told by retailers and manufacturers that the market will not accept the necessary higher price point. We must exert pressure on retailers and legislators that this is about health and safety and is just as high a priority as fire safety. Just as consumer pressure pushed BPA out of our baby products by voting with our wallets and paying more for alternative products without BPA, we can do the same to force upholstered goods to change.

    We see it as a part of our job as furniture industry professionals to not just blindly comply with standards, but to question them, lobby for or against them and design/develop better products with the ultimate goal of being in the best interest of the health and safety of our customer and her family.

    For more on our thoughts on this subject, please check out our blog post: “Blame the Sofa, Not the Smoke Detector” http://hazzdesign.com/blog/?p=287

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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