8 Sickening Facts About Flame Retardants

A new documentary chronicles a decades-long "campaign of deception" that resulted in widespread use of the biggest rip-off ever.

November 25, 2013
burning arm chair
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"It's Love Canal, and it's on fire." That's how one California firefighter described the average residential house fire to the filmmakers behind the new HBO documentary Toxic Hot Seat. "These fires that we're going to now are an absolute toxic soup."

And he isn't wrong. Flame retardant chemicals have now been added to nearly every piece of furniture sold in the U.S., yet they're untested, ineffective, and toxic to homeowners, all while driving up cancer rates for firefighters.


HBO's new film focuses on a groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative series by The Chicago Tribune, "Playing with Fire." Published in May 2012, it revealed the dirty tricks that chemical companies and even Big Tobacco used to make untested, toxic chemicals ubiquitous in American homes. The filmmakers interviewed the three journalists behind the series, along with a number of their sources, exposing the toxic reality that you cuddle up to every time you plop down on your sofa.

"In the series, we used the phrase 'Decades-long campaign of deception,'" Patricia Callahan, one of the three Tribune reporters, says in the film. "I don't use those words lightly. Those are words we back up with fact."

The documentary highlights some of the most frightening facts about flame retardants and what they are—and aren't—doing to you.

#1: Thousands of studies have linked these chemicals to serious physical harm.

In the 1990s, Swedish scientists raised red flags when they discovered that flame-retardant compounds in widespread use were building up in mothers' breast milk. Since then, thousands of studies published by independent researchers have linked them to increased rates of infertility; birth defects, lower IQ scores, and behavioral problems in children; and liver, kidney, testicular, and breast cancers in adults. Disturbingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 90 percent of Americans contain some level of flame retardants in their bodies.

#2: Flame retardants produce more toxic smoke.

Many of the flame retardants used today belong to a class of chemicals called organohalogens—a class of chemicals that includes DDT and PCBs—that build up in people and wildlife and never go away. Foam treated with organohalogens gives off way more carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than untreated foam, and it's those three things, not burns, that are most likely to kill someone in a fire. Furthermore, as these chemicals burn, they react with other toxic materials in smoke to produce carcinogenic dioxins and furans.


#3: A flame retardant that was banned from children's pajamas in the late 1970s because it caused cancer in children is the most commonly used flame retardant in U.S. furniture and baby products today.

The chemical is called tris, and it was banned only from kids' pajamas. Now it's used in the nursing pillows, nap mats, car seats, and strollers—in addition to the furniture—that children and infants are exposed to every day.

#4: In California, female firefighters aged 40 to 50 have breast cancer rates nearly six times the national average for that age group.

That's due to the state's early adoption of flame retardants, which have taken root nationwide at slower rates. And increasingly, firefighters of both genders are developing cancer at disturbing rates, which environmental health researchers suspect is owing to the toxic dioxins and furans that they're exposed to at every fire. One San Francisco firehouse profiled in the documentary had three men who developed a very rare form of cancer known as transitional cell carcinoma, a cancer more commonly found among chemical-industry workers than the general public.

#5: Yet, the chemical industry has no legitimate evidence that flame retardants even work.

The American Chemistry Council and the three companies that manufacture flame retardants have relied on two studies to "prove" that flame retardants work, and the biggest of these studies was grossly misinterpreted, according to its author, Vytenis Babrauskas, PhD, a fire-protection engineer. He subjected furniture treated with extremely powerful, NASA-style flame retardants to fire and found that treated foam would give people an extra 15 seconds of escape time during a fire. But, "This is not the furniture you buy when you go into a retailer and say you want a new living room sofa," he said. Yet the industry has, and still does, insist that his study proves that fireproof furniture gives people a 15-fold increase in escape time. In reality, furniture companies use too little of much less potent retardants that provide "a slight benefit of a few seconds," he says, "but you do get great gobs more noxious chemicals put out in smoke." Babrauskas said in the documentary that he now considers it an ethical duty to fight the industry's misinterpretation of his data.


Government and independent studies show that these chemicals provide no benefit for people. The drop in fire-related deaths, in reality, has come from sprinkler systems, fire alarms, self-extinguishing cigarettes, and other now-mandatory construction codes.

#6: So why are they there? Thank Big Tobacco.

Flame-retardant chemicals came into being back in the 1970s, Callahan told the filmmakers, a time when 40 percent of the country smoked, people commonly smoked indoors, and a lot of people were dying in fires, most of which were ignited by cigarettes. At the time, the tobacco industry knew it could make cigarettes self-extinguishing but, not surprisingly, it didn't want to. So as the push for fire-safe cigarettes was gaining steam, the tobacco industry fought back—by organizing a fake front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which claimed to represent firefighters. The group's main focus was pushing for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture.

These efforts weren't totally successful. By the end of the '70s, all 50 states had passed laws requiring self-extinguishing cigarettes. But one state took it a step further…

#7: You can thank California for flame retardants winding up in your home today.  

In 1975, as a response to the rising risk of fire deaths, the state of California passed a law known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), which required polyurethane foam to resist an open flame. Sadly, though the original author of TB117 had specifically included language requiring that any chemical used to make furniture fire resistant be safe for human health, politicians removed that language before the law went into effect.

The furniture industry originally tried to produce furniture solely for the California market and separate products for the rest of the U.S. But that proved to be too onerous, and 30 years after the law was enacted, 80 percent of all furniture sold in the U.S. now meets TB117 standards—with toxic chemicals.  

#8: The industry has spent millions on efforts to defeat any reform of TB117.

Mark Leno, a state senator in California, has doggedly tried to reform TB117 since 2005, sponsoring four bills in the state legislature that would update the law so that toxic chemicals weren't required to make furniture fire-safe; furniture upholstery fabrics can be made of a certain material and weave to provide greater fire safety without any added chemicals. Yet, he was bested by a deep-pocketed industry at every turn. The chemical industry went so far as to hire a doctor who made up horrific stories about children dying in fires, stories he told while testifying during hearings about TB117.

Those deep pockets also funded another "astroturf" group called Citizens for Fire Safety, described on its website as a coalition of doctors, fire marshals, and fire-safety educators. When Callahan went digging into the public records to find out who was funding this group, it turned out that the only "members" were Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. "They were lying," she said. "The group was presenting itself to the public, to firefighters, to state legislators as something it was not."

All hope is not lost. Despite the industry lies and misinterpretation of the data, the Tribune series triggered congressional hearings and political outrage. A little more than six months after it was published, California's governor sidestepped all legislative efforts to reform TB117 and used his power as governor to direct the California Bureau of Home Furnishings to rewrite the law in a way that would ensure fire safety without the use of harmful chemicals. The governor's office announced on Nov. 21, 2013, that furniture manufacturers would begin producing furniture that meets the new standard in January 2014. Full compliance with the new TB117-2013 is January 2015. However, the new law simply states that furniture makers aren't required to use these chemicals. It doesn't ban them outright, so when shopping, always ask for furniture made without flame retardant chemicals.

Still, these toxic chemicals are likely to linger for years, since people aren't likely to run out and replace every piece of upholstered furniture they own come January 2014. Also, polyurethane foam is often recycled into things like carpet padding and sports mats. In fact, a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology sampled blood from a small group of collegiate gymnasts, who are surrounded by polyurethane foam mats and foam blocks on a daily basis, and found flame retardants at levels 4.0 to 6.5 times the national average, levels that are comparable to those found in polyurethane foam recyclers and carpet installers.

For more information on where to purchase flame retardant-free furniture, visit greensciencepolicy.org/consumers for a list of some manufacturers who state their furniture is free of flame retardants. This list will greatly expand in 2014 when the standard changes.

Catch Toxic Hot Seat on HBO. Check toxichotseatmovie.com for airtimes.