Do We Need Flame Retardants In Our Furniture and Electronics?

citizen fire safety astroturf

What is it with Astroturfers and kids? Whenever there is a "grass roots" campaign, like Citizens for Fire Safety, they fill their websites with kids. Does this one tell them that their bodies are bioaccumulating brominated flame retardants, that, according to the Environmental Health Fund, " may harm the developing brain, impair sperm development, and impair thyroid function"?

No, because it is an astroturf site paid for by the bromine and flame retardant industry, now lobbying in California to stop a bill that would give people the choice of buying furniture made without flame retardants.

flame retardants breast milk
image credit NRDC

Many of these brominated fire retardants are banned in Europe under the REACH program, but they are sold by the tonne in America. Since 1975, California has had the toughest fire safety standards, requiring foam to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds before igniting. But when it does ignite, it produces dioxins and other dangerous chemicals. According to an article in Scientific American by Eric Vance:

Flame retardants in foam "are not effective enough to make them stop burning rapidly once they're ignited. But they are effective in polluting the environment and creating health concerns," says fire expert Vytenis Babrauskas, president of Fire Science & Technology, Inc., and a 16-year veteran of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "You get the worst coming and going."

The Consumer Federation of California supports the bill that would revise the 1975 standard:

These chemicals migrate from furniture into household dust, which is ingested by people and pets. As a result, virtually every Californian tested has been found to have flame retardants stored in their bodies, with babies and toddlers having the highest levels. Levels have increased 40-fold in human breast milk since the TB117 standard was put into practice.

Many fire retardant chemicals are now considered global contaminants. Studies on environmental health have associated the use of these toxics with adverse health effects in both humans and animals, including hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and fetal and child development. Yet many scientists argue that an equivalent level of fire safety can be achieved without using these harmful chemicals.

The Green Science Policy Institute is asking California citizens to send letters or faxes to senators, noting that firefighters, doctors and environmental groups all support the change, and asks: "Why do you take the word of the chemical industry rather than scientists, doctors, and firefighters?"

The fact of the matter is that this stuff doesn't stop fires, it is not bound to the foam but just mixed in, so it leaches out into our dust bunnies and pets, and when it does burn, it is toxic to firefighters and residents alike. If it really made a difference then it might be worth the risk, but there isn't a lot of evidence that it does.

Read more in Scientific American

big step building sprinkers

I have advocated a solution that would enable the elimination of flame retardants and would make organizations like Citizens for Fire Safety happy if they cared about fire safety instead of bromine and flame retardant sales: Put sprinklers in every housing unit. I wrote:

Many natural materials burn; when you fill them with chemicals so that they don't, they are no longer natural. Let's deal with the problem the way we have for thousands of years; throw cold water on it.

More on Flame Retardants:
High Levels of Flame Retardants Found in Dogs
Blood Levels Of Flame Retardants Correlate With House Dust Exposure
Les Moutons, They Are Full of Fire Retardants
PDBEs: Where Do They Come From And What Are They Doing To Us?

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