Saturday, May 26, 2012

NTM News Brief: Playing with Fire (Chicago Tribune)

The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world

BAM.  This is how the Chicago Tribune’s recently published 5 part investigative series begins.

This  4 part investigative report is beyond eye opening.  The Tribune uncovered how 2 powerful industries - Tobacco and chemical manufacturers -  successfully waged  deceptive campaigns  presenting distorted science, phony front groups and straight up lies to mislead both regulators and the public and convince them of the benefits and need of flame retardants.

The results of decades of deception?  The presence of these chemicals in every single household in the country... chemicals that do not even work  as promised and who’s long term effects on our and our children’s health are quickly proving toxic.

Among the most frustrating and bothersome details the series unveils?
Just how easy it is for industry to fabricate (their investigation revealed that REPEATEDLY scientists and doctors speaking for the use of flame retardants have lied -making up stories about specific burn deaths among other things)  stories and have it not only accepted as the truth but be the basis for laws that have brought toxic chemicals into our homes.

It is eye opening and worth reading (click here to read TRIBUNE WATCHDOG PLAYING WITH FIRE)  but if you don't have the time here is a summary (and if you are not sure why you should care. jump to the end of the article!)

The first section starts off describing the testimony by the doctor who has been the star witness for the flame retardant industry in most if not all official hearings concerning these chemicals over the past few years.   The Seattle based burn doctor has repeatedly testified in these hearings and was found to have created false scenarios of child burn victims in order to put forth the agenda of the fire retardant industry.  Confronted by the journalist from the Tribune the doctor acknowledged that his stories were untrue but explained, “I wasn’t under oath.”

His repeated false testimonies, in many official hearings and specifically in California, have been the main force  behind the decision to require flame retardants in furniture and children’s products... and thus the main reason why we all have fire retardant chemicals in our houses. 

Another  player that has influenced and  helped convince regulators that flame retardants save lives and thus  must be  used throughout the house?  Citizens for Fire Safety, "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety."  The catch?  The only 3 members are Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, the largest manufacturers of flame retardants that, together, control 40 percent of the world market for these chemicals,

Through different players, the chemical industry has convinced many  that flame retardants save lives; this is why our children’s pajamas must be doused in them, as are crib  (and adult) mattresses, changers, sofas, rugs and electronics.  Yet according to many recent studies, the huge amount of fire retardants in our furniture (up to 2 pounds in one couch!!) , mattresses and electronics actually ”don't protect consumers from fire in any meaningful way.” and might even make smoke from fires even more toxic.

It is extremely frustrating to read this investigative report that describes how, for the last decades, the Tobacco and Chemical industries have flat out lied and deceived the public and regulators.  Based on these lies, laws have been passed that have brought toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological and developmental problems into your house and mine.


The Tribune discovered details about Big Tobacco's role, their “secretive campaign” ,  to win over the National Association of State Fire Marshals and ‘help’ make them the number one proponents of fire retardants in furniture. So much, that companies like Philip Morris collaborated with the marshals on flame retardant furniture standards.

The journalists disclose internal memos, speeches and strategic plans that revealed the surprising and influential role of Big Tobacco in the buildup of toxic chemicals in American furniture.

Part three describes how the chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay their health risks.  They have done this with such success, the article claims, that the industry’s  ‘story’ has essentially  been adopted as fact, cited by consultants, think tanks, regulators and Wikipedia, and have shaped the worldwide debate about the safety of flame retardants.

Among the examples of how science has been distorted, is one of the largest studies ever conducted to determine the effectiveness of fire retardants in a fire.   The lead author of the study explains that they used SO much fire retardants that, yes, the chemicals did delay the fire.  The industry used these results as a scientific  basis for their argument of the effectiveness of the chemicals. However, the study’s author explains,   “industry officials have "grossly distorted" the findings of his research, which was not based on real-world conditions. The small amounts of flame retardants in typical home furnishings, he said, offer little to no fire protection... The bottom line: Household furniture often contains enough chemicals to pose health threats but not enough to stem fires — "the worst of both possible worlds," he said.”

The Tribune describes the current fire retardant that has been approved by the EPA :  Firemaster 550.   The manufacturer's own health studies, obtained by the Tribune, found that exposing rats to high doses of Firemaster 550  lowered birth weight, altered female genitalia and caused skeletal malformations such as fused ribs and vertebrae. .. and yet it was approved by the EPA for use in baby products and common household items.

The history of Firemaster 550, highlights  "how EPA officials have allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without thoroughly assessing health risks.”

At the base of the problem is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, that basically allows companies to sell products that contain chemicals that have not been proven safe.  When health effects are document, the law make it almost impossible for the EPA to ban the chemical.

"By the time the scientific community catches up to one chemical, industry moves on to another and they go back to their playbook of delay and denial,"


  • Long term exposure to fire retardants have been linked 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
  • The average American baby is born with the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world
  • Most human exposure to flame retardants comes from ingesting “surprisingly large amounts” of contaminated household dust, rather than from people's diet or what they absorb through their skin.
  • According to the EPA, young children are exposed to significantly higher levels than adults, because they spend so much time playing on the floor.
  •  About a fifth of the nursing pillows, car seats, highchairs, diaper-changing pads and other products made with polyurethane foam contained Firemaster 550.  But the most common flame retardant detected is another chemical: chlorinated tris, also known as TDCCP. which manufacturers voluntarily took out of children's pajamas more than three decades ago after it was linked to cancer.  Since it was never officially banned it is still being used - regardless of its strong links to cancer.

The investigative piece makes me feel outraged.  Frustrated. Scared.    And really pissed off.   But it also validates why I care about the research I do and why I go out of my way to try to protect my family from these chemicals.  If you are reading this you do to!  Unfortunately,  if we don't do it, no one else will.

For more information on easy steps to take to reduce fire retardants at home read our post, ' How to reduce Tris Flame Retardant Exposure At Home'

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