Flaming Mad About Chemical Industry Lies

CEH staff members have been consistently working on the problems surrounding flame retardants for the past 5 years.  We have uncovered and exposed many of the lies and deceptions that the chemical industry has perpetuated, but never in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that the Chicago Tribune would issue a four-part investigative report that uncovers all the dirt we knew was there and even more shocking facts that surprised even us!  These articles are a must read!

A four-part investigative report this week in the Chicago Tribune exposes how the makers of chemicals marketed as fire retardants use deception, distorted science, phony front groups and straight up lies to mislead both regulators and the public.   The story also showcases the lack of fire safety benefits from California’s rule (called TB 117) that leads to the use of chemical fire retardants in furniture, baby products, and many other consumer goods. Everyone interested in safer products for their children and families, and those who want to know more about how the chemical companies use the tobacco industry’s tactics to continue profiting from harmful, ineffective products will want to read these four articles.

The first story in the Tribune series was particularly infuriating to those of us working for safer products. Last year, my colleague Kathryn Alcantar, CEH’s Policy Director, attended a California legislative hearing on a bill that would have updated the state’s furniture flammability standard to eliminate the need to use chemical retardants.  Speaking in opposition to the bill was   Dr. David Heimbach, a retired burn doctor, who told the assembled state lawmakers the heart-wrenching story of a 7-week old baby from Alaska who was severely burned from a candle that ignited her pillow. The reform bill was voted down.

But the Tribune report found that Heimbach lied to state legislators and the public in his testimony last year – and that he was paid by a flame retardant industry front group for his testimony of lies. The paper’s investigation showed that there was no such baby, no such pillow and no candle – and that Heimbach has repeatedly testified at official hearings by creating false scenarios of child burn victims for his fire retardant industry patrons .  Faced with the evidence of his lies,   Heimbach acknowledged that the story was untrue but explained, “I wasn’t under oath.” 

The other organization that testified against the California bill last year was the “Citizens for Fire Safety Institute.” As the Tribune showed, “Citizens for Fire Safety” (CFS) has nothing to do with citizens or fire safety. It is a trade association – a group of for-profit companies assembled to advance their interests (ie, corporate profits) at any cost.  The only members of CFS are the three largest manufactures of chemical retardants: Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products.  These chemical companies use this “nonprofit” front group for only one objective, promoting the use of their toxic and untested chemicals.  They regularly pay off a cadre of “experts” to testify against bills that would restrict the use of their chemicals.

The issue of flame retardants in consumer products is personal for me and whether you know it or not, probably for you too! You see, whether you live in California or not, almost all of nation’s furniture has been treated with toxic flame retardants. Many products, like couches and other furniture, contain not just a few ounces but up to two pounds of the harmful chemicals in the foam cushions.   Numerous recent studies have linked flame retardant chemicals to lower IQs, reduced fertility, hormonal changes, reproductive harm, impacts on the thyroid and metabolic function, and hindering neurological development in infants and children, among other health threats. What’s more, studies show that these chemicals are in our blood, our breast milk, in our kids, in our pets and in the environment.

When I had the foam in my couch tested for flame retardants last year as part of an ongoing study by the Green Science Policy Institute, I learned that my foam contains a chlorinated chemical that is known to cause cancer .  Yikes!  I’d love to go out and buy a new couch, but except for some high end couches, it is not possible to buy a couch in much of the United States that does not contain flame retardants.

Ultimately, we need to change California’s outdated flammability standard.  This is a national issue because even furniture manufacturers who produce outside of California typically make all of their furniture comply with California’s antiquated standard. The massive size of the state’s market and the distribution system for furniture makes it impractical for companies to make two separate product lines.

It is difficult to avoid flame retardants because they are in our most of our furniture, many of our electronics and in baby products containing foam.  Until California’s flammability standard is changed there are a few things you can do:

  • Avoid products that contain polyurethane foam and that have a label stating the product meets, the California furniture flammability standard. Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117).   Flame retardants have been found in some products that do not have a TB 117 label so this is no guarantee.
  • Opt for products made of polyester, wool, cotton or down as these materials are unlikely to contain added flame retardants.
  • Wash your hands frequently.  Be sure to wash your hands after touching dryer lint as the lint can contain concentrated amounts of chemicals that migrate out of the products.
  • Vacuum using a HEPA filter and use a wet mop to reduce dust that may contain toxic chemicals
  • Select electronic products that are free of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants.  See CEH’s Electronics Shopping Guide.
  • Try to use a minimum of carpeting and draperies in your home as these can be treated with flame retardants as well as with other potentially toxic chemicals such as stain repellants.
  • Some baby product makers have reported that they do not use halogenated flame retardants.These companies include:
    • Baby Luxe Organic:  Polyester-filled and cotton-covered pads and mattresses
    • Baby Bjorn: Polyester-filled and cotton-covered baby carriers
    • Orbit Baby:   Strollers and car seats with Expanded Polypropylene foam that meets TB 117 without halogenated chemicals
    • Boppy:  Nursing pillows filled with polyester and no added flame retardant chemicals