Required Reading: “Playing With Fire”

The Chicago Tribune recently published an investigative series exploring how the tobacco industry, along with three chemical companies that produce flame retardants, successfully campaigned for laws requiring flame retardants in furniture. Studies show that flame retardants do not provide safety, and evidence links them to cancer, fetal impairment, and reproductive problems.

I can’t think of a better word to describe this series than the one Nicholas Kristof used: “devastating.”

In the past, burning cigarettes caused so many house fires that tobacco companies were pressured to produce fire-safe cigarettes. Instead, they mounted a campaign for flame retardants in furniture. They secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals and manipulated its agenda to push for flame retardants.

Then Citizens for Fire Safety, “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments, and industry leaders,” joined the effort. But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, and they happen to be the three biggest producers of flame retardants.

Citizens for Fire Safety paid Dr. David Heimbach, who testified in favor of flame retardants. He invented stories of children burning to death on cushions that lacked flame retardants.

As a result, our homes are filled with toxic chemicals that do nothing but enrich three companies and jeopardize our health. A typical sofa contains up to 2 pounds of flame retardant chemicals. Chlorinated Tris, banned from use in children’s pajamas, is still used in nursing pillows and changing pads. When flame retardants burn, they release toxic smoke.

Flame retardants are in your body.

Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven’t declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world. (Chicago Tribune, “Playing With Fire,” May 2012)

Flame retardants are ineffective.

The chemical industry often points to a government study from the 1980s as proof that flame retardants save lives. But the study’s lead author, Vytenis Babrauskas, said in an interview that the industry has grossly distorted his findings and that the amount of retardants used in household furniture doesn’t work.

“The fire just laughs at it,” he said. (Chicago Tribune, “Playing With Fire,” May 2012)

Personally, I’ve been in a funk after reading this information. We’re surrounded. The Ikea chair in Sweet William’s room. A Mitchell Gold loveseat, the first piece of “adult” furniture I purchased, next to Fergus’ crib. The living room furniture, my desk chair, our electronics. All of it full of flame retardants.

I see four things that can be done.

•  Dust and vacuum regularly. Flame retardants migrate into dust, which we ingest. Eliminate dust by cleaning at least once a week. We plan to dust and vacuum our boys’ rooms on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m not sure where I’ll find that extra hour every week, but it’s worth it.

•  Wash hands. This one is especially important for Fergus and William, who play on the floor and stick their hands in their mouths. I make a habit of washing their hands before meals and naps, but I need to do it more often. Adults should also wash their hands regularly, including after emptying the lint filter in the dryer. Lint concentrates flame retardants and other chemicals.

•  When it’s time to replace the furniture, look for safe materials. I found these companies that advertise their products as flame-retardant-free: FurnatureCisco Brothers, Naturepedic, and EcoBalanza.

• Speak up. Tell your friends and family about flame retardants. Support initiatives to end their use, like this one. Support the Safe Chemicals Act.



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