An award-winning series of articles in the Chicago Tribune in 2012 brought national attention to the issue of flame retardants in furniture. After reviewing government, scientific, and industry documents, the reporters called the tactics used to promote the chemicals “a decades-long campaign of deception” by the tobacco and chemical industries. Here are some highlights:
- Though allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in household products, flame-retardant chemicals have never been subjected to a thorough safety review. Rather, as a general rule, the government must prove them unsafe to take them off the market.
- Flame retardants in home furniture have not been proven to provide any meaningful fire protection. The current California TB117 standard requires that the foam used in furnishings not catch fire when exposed to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds; adding flame retardants is the easiest way to meet the standard. But since the fabric covering is not tested, the furniture can still catch fire and create a fire big enough to overwhelm the chemicals in the foam. In fire tests, flames engulfed couches at a similar rate whether or not they contained flame retardants.
- The chemical industry has manipulated and distorted the scientific data to back its claims that flame retardants save lives. Even the author of a major government study, which industry cites as proof that the chemicals work as intended, says that his research was misinterpreted and that flame retardants in the amounts used in furniture offer little or no protection.
- The tobacco industry has aggressively promoted flame retardants in furniture to limit liability should furniture catch fire from a cigarette, and to delay having to develop self-extinguishing “fire-safe” cigarettes. Over the years it has battled to shift the blame for furniture fires away from cigarettes and to the furniture itself (cigarettes may ignite the fire, it says, but furniture fuels it). To drive its agenda, the tobacco industry stealthily helped create and fund the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which, with a more wholesome image than cigarette companies, was at the forefront of the push for legislation that would mandate heavy use of the chemicals. Of course the makers of flame retardants have gained, too, as sales of the chemicals have soared from 526 million pounds in 1983 to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009.
- Fire retardants have also been heavily promoted by Citizens for Fire Safety, which touted itself as representing firefighters, burn doctors and community groups, but was actually a trade association for chemical companies. According to the Tribune, much of the testimony given to California legislators on behalf of the organization in support of the chemicals was falsified. In particular, the Tribune called out David Heimbach, M.D., a former president of the American Burn Association, for giving questionable testimony about candle fires burning babies, allegedly because their pillows and crib mattresses did not contain flame retardants. Dr. Heimbach admitted that his testimony was not all true.
Since the Tribune investigation, Citizens for Fire Safety no longer exists. Its website—which now clearly expresses the relationship between the organization’s founding members and the chemical industry—directs readers to the American Chemical Council website for more information about fire safety.