Flame Retardant Rules Result of Deception, Says Investigation

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By Erin Weaver

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New flammability standards could lead to improved fire safety without the toxic chemicals encouraged by industry scare tactics.

Consumer Product Safety Commission

The dangers of flame retardants have been understated and the benefits exaggerated, while groups promoting them may not be what they seem, according to the Chicago Tribune in a recent investigative series. In reviewing thousands of government, scientific, and internal industry documents, the Tribune found evidence of long-term deception on the part of chemical manufacturers, and the newspaper suggests that the original push to mandate fire-resistant furniture came from an unexpected source: the tobacco industry.

While chemical bans have successively led to the development of new flame retardants that turn out to be just as bad (see “‘Safe’ Flame Retardants Show Bioaccumulation Potential,” EBN Dec. 2011), there are some indications that the Tribune’s high-profile coverage will lead to more fundamental changes. According to Arlene Blum, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, the Consumer Product Safety Commission “has been working on a really good furniture standard” since 2008. “That would solve the problem because it would give us more fire safety with no toxic chemicals,” she told EBN. The new standard focuses on upholstery fabrics that can resist smoldering cigarettes rather than foam containing flame retardants.

“Changing standards and codes is way better than banning chemicals, because there are always more chemicals,” says Blum, who notes that U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is calling for the new standard to be enacted in response to the Tribune piece.

Brominated flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have long been linked to cancer, developmental and neurological problems, and impaired fertility. EBN called for a ban on these chemicals in 2004 and a shift in the burden of proof from regulators to manufacturers (see “Flame Retardants Under Fire,” EBN June 2004). Common in sofa cushions, carpet padding, and baby products like high chairs, diaper-changing pads, and breast-feeding pillows, many chemicals escape into household dust; American babies are born with the highest blood levels of flame retardants in the world. That may not do much to prevent fires, though. According to the Tribune series, “Household furniture often contains enough chemicals to pose health threats but not enough to stem fires.” Among the studies repeatedly cited by the industry, the author of one from the 1980s says his findings have been grossly distorted; another was based on just eight television fires in Stockholm.

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The industry has hired the same consultants who disputed the dangers of secondhand smoke, part of an ongoing entanglement with Big Tobacco. Decades ago, when pressured to develop a fire-safe cigarette, tobacco companies responded by shifting the blame to the things cigarettes commonly lit on fire: household furniture. R.J. Reynolds’ strategy in fighting California regulations insisted, “Fire officials must keep the pressure on the Commission to focus on the fuels rather than ignition sources." The industry even founded a National Association of State Fire Marshals, spearheaded by former Tobacco Institute vice president Peter Sparber, noted for his contributions in casting smoking as a “fundamental freedom.” The marshals, apparently unaware Sparber was on the tobacco industry’s payroll, duly presented a publicly compelling face for the industry’s arguments that flame-retardant furniture was the most effective means of preventing fires.

The connection with tobacco largely dissolved after states passed rules requiring fire-safe cigarettes, but by then the use of flame retardants in furniture was firmly established, with particularly strict flammability regulations in California. The test of exposing treated foam to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds led to the use of high levels of flame retardants (as a result, Californians have particularly high blood levels of flame retardants). When the State was considering approving a test based on a smoldering cigarette, manufacturers feared a shift away from flame retardants and needed to establish candles as a serious threat. A group called the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute paid burn surgeon David Heimbach, M.D., to testify regarding infants who had died in fires caused by candles and a lack of flame retardants, and California maintained the standard, candle-like flame test.

When Heimbach’s testimony was later called into question, he admitted that the several deaths he had described were all based on one infant; the Tribune found that even the one baby Heimbach said he had in mind died from a fire started by an extension cord—not a candle—and flame retardants played no role in the death. And the group that paid him turned out to be a trade association consisting of only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products, and Chemtura, the largest manufacturers of flame retardants.

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May 14, 2012