Copious Chemicals in Your Couch

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A massive scam is unraveling here in California.

For decades, the chemical industry pushed the “necessity” of using fire retardants in household furniture –despite irrefutable evidence that the substances were both harmful for human health and largely ineffective in preventing fires. 

Couches, loveseats and chairs have been laden with toxic chemicals since 1975 when California instituted a flammability standard known as TB 117, a regulation that essentially mandated the soaking of the foam in upholstered furniture with chemicals.  Retardant manufacturers in partnership with Big Tobacco insisted such steps were necessary to prevent catastrophic home fires:  They marshaled expert witnesses by the score, who provided heartbreaking “testimony” of children scarred or killed by residential fires, and infiltrated the fire marshalls organization, convincing them to focus their advocacy on furniture rather than the source of the fire, cigarettes.

And it was all a hoax. As revealed this week in a meticulous investigative piece published by The Chicago Tribune, the entire campaign grew from a cabal of Big Tobacco and Big Chemical;  the tobacco industry wanted to divert attention from cigarettes as a major cause of fire fatalities, and the chemical industry wanted to – well, sell chemicals – and lots of them.

This unholy alliance found plenty of camp-followers to carry their water. That included Dr. David Heimbach, a retired Seattle surgeon and former president of the American Burn Association. He provided harrowing anecdotes to California lawmakers about a “7-week-old baby girl” who had been burned in a 2009 fire caused by a candle igniting a pillow untreated with flame retardants; the infant, Dr. Heimbach said, succumbed to her injuries after “three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital.”

One small problem: Dr. Heimbach’s claim was utterly false. As the Tribune found, the fatally burned baby was a fabrication.  Nor was there a six-week-old infant burned to death in 2006 due to a chemically untreated mattress, as Heimbach testified to Alaskan legislators.

When questioned about his statements, Dr. Heimbach equivocated, claiming his California testimony was “ anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.”  Later, through his attorney, he offered another explanation:  He played fast and loose with the facts to “protect patient privacy.”  My colleague, Dr. Sarah Janssen, blogged about Dr. Heimbach’s lack of professional integrity and breach of medical ethics. 

What is clear is that fire retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological impairment, and decreased fertility.  The chemicals migrate out of furniture and concentrate in dust, posing particular hazards to children, who play on floors and often put household objects and their hands in their mouths.  Between 1970 and 2004, blood levels of flame retardant chemicals doubled in U.S. adults every two to five years.  Today, among the world’s babies, American infants are born with the highest known tissue concentrations of flame retardant compounds. 

And it’s only going to get worse. The use of these long-lived chemicals jumped from 526 million pounds in 1983 to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009.  By next year, that figure is expected to hit 4.4 billion pounds.

And here’s the great irony:  these chemicals are worthless in preventing household blazes.  As reported by the Tribune, the author of a definitive study on the efficacy of fire retardants in upholstered furniture concluded “….fire just laughs at (them)…”  The chemicals also make fires more toxic, exposing firefighters to hazardous substances like carbon monoxide and soot. 

TB 117 was enacted with good intentions, but it’s only too apparent now that California has been played by some of the most astute – and most cynical—gamers in existence.  Researchers have long warned of the danger posed by fire retardant chemicals, and the Natural Resources Defense Council along with a large coalition of firefighters, scientists, businesses, consumers, and public health advocates has made their discontinuance a priority. Our allies in the California legislature have backed us on this, sponsoring bills to eliminate toxic fire retardants from household products three times in the past four years.

These bills didn’t pass, but our coalition is working with policy makers to advance regulations and legislation that will modernize TB 117 so that it better addresses fire safety and eliminates the need for toxic fire retardants in our furniture. 

A critical step to protect our safety and health is to modernize California’s standards based on current fire safety science and years of research by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. The new standard would increase the level of fire safety of furniture and allow furniture makers to meet the flammability standard without using toxic and untested chemicals. Learn more about our work and take action at:

Image courtesy of Star Athena via Flickr