As recent changes in regulations and increased media coverage bring deserved attention to the issue of flame retardant chemicals in consumer products, the chemical industry has gone on the defensive. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade organization representing Chemtura, Abermarle, and ICL (the three major producers of flame retardants), has responded by hosting a creatively misleading website called flameretardantfacts.com.
Front and center on this industry-funded site is the assertion that “Consumers don’t have to choose between chemical safety and fire safety. Flame retardants are subject to review by government agencies in the U.S. and around the world.” Although it is true that chemicals, including flame retardants, are “subject to review by government agencies,” these reviews are often carried out without any data at all on the health and environmental impacts of a given chemical. The reality is that the EPA lacks the authority to regulate chemicals, even those as toxic as asbestos which kills thousands every year, prior to commercial production.
On the “Fact Checker” page of the chemical industry website, the notion that “The presence of flame retardants in a person’s body will lead to adverse health effects,” is deemed a myth. The page goes on to quote the CDC’s statement that “[T]he measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine is an indication of exposure; it does not by itself mean that a chemical causes disease or an adverse effect.” While the CDC is correct in stating that exposure to some other chemicals does not necessitate harm, there are many hundreds of studies demonstrating that the most commonly used flame retardant chemicals found in upholstered furniture today are indeed harmful.
Take chlorinated tris (TDCPP) and Firemaster 550, the flame retardants used in most new furniture over the past few years for example:
- chlorinated tris is listed as a carcinogen under California’s Prop 65 and several states have passed bans
- chronic exposure to Firemaster 550 (a proprietary blend that independent researchers have had little opportunity to study) has been found to negatively impact the liver, kidneys, adrenal gland, reproductive system, central nervous system, and poses hazards to human development. It is also classified as “dangerous to the environment.”
Chemtura, the producer of Firemaster 550, is clearly aware of this information, as it comes from their own recently revised Material Safety Data Sheet.
On the fire safety front, the ACC again presents a distorted view of current science. The website attributes the reduction in furniture fires and associated deaths in the past four decades to the now-defunct California furniture flammability standard TB 117: “TB 117 has been an effective standard. In fact, after its implementation in the 1970s furniture fires were cut by two-thirds.” Although there is a correlation between these two variables, we have to remember that correlation does not mean causation. They neglect to mention that rates of cigarette smoking, one of the main causes of furniture fires, plummeted in that same time period. Smoke alarms also came into use around that time, and according to UL, “Fire deaths have been cut in half since smoke alarms were introduced in the late 1970s.” And as we have cited in the past, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report stating that “…the fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significantly greater level of open-flame safety than did the untreated foams. (pg. 26)”
Might it be more accurate to label these as flame retardant fictions?