Friday, Nov. 29, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Researchers this summer purchased 42 children’s chairs, sofas and other furniture from major retailers and tested them for toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished IQs and other problems.
In a study released a few days ago, the Center for Environmental Health reported the results: The toxins were found in all but four of the products tested.
“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame-retardant chemicals when they sit on a Mickey Mouse couch, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” a co-author of the study, Carolyn Cox, said in releasing the report.
These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery, powerfully told in a new HBO documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat,” that is scheduled to air Monday evening.
This is a televised window into political intrigue and duplicity that makes “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad” seem like a Sunday school picnic.
The story goes back to the 1970s, when the tobacco industry was under pressure to make self-extinguishing cigarettes because so many people were dying in fires caused by careless smokers. The tobacco industry didn’t want to tinker with cigarettes, so it lobbied instead for requiring flame retardants in mattresses and couches.
This became a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for the chemical industry, but studies showed that flame retardants as actually used in sofas don’t prevent fires. This is easy to test: Just set a cushion on fire. The documentary shows that it will burn right up.
The chemical industry has cited the work of a fire safety scientist, Vytenis Babrauskas, as showing that flame retardants do limit fires. But Babrauskas says in the HBO documentary that chemical companies misrepresented his findings “in an exceedingly blatant and disgraceful way.”
Babrauskas says that, in fact, retardants provide little, if any, delay for a fire, and then lead to much more toxic fumes. “You get the worst of both possible worlds,” he says.
One risk is to firefighters, who are coming down with rare cancers. The larger danger is to people sitting on those couches. Retardants are released as dust from the foam and accumulate on the floor. The greatest risk is probably to pregnant women and to small children, who are also more likely to be on the floor.
These chemicals are frequently endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones, and mounting evidence links them to cancer, reproductive problems and other ailments. One positive step: California announced new standards that will lead to the sale of flame-retardant-free furniture there.
It’s often impossible to know whether a particular couch contains retardants. The Center for Environmental Health suggests that parents avoid foam and choose furniture made of wood, or upholstered with cotton, down, wool or polyester fiberfill.
Arlene Blum, a California scientist whose research led to certain flame retardants being banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, recounts her horror when she found that those same chemicals were still being used in couches that children sleep on.
As the evidence grew about the danger of flame retardants, legislation was proposed in California, Maine and elsewhere to curb these chemicals. That’s when a mysterious organization called Citizens for Fire Safety Institute began running commercials defending the chemicals.
“The California Legislature is considering a bill that will endanger our children,” the group warned in one commercial. Another cautioned that without flame retardants, household furniture would spread fire through a home.
“Say no to laws that put our children in danger,” the group warned.
So who are these Citizens for Fire Safety? Their website once showed an image of children in front of a fire station and described the group as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”
“Toxic Hot Seat” follows a group of Chicago Tribune reporters as they dig into Citizens for Fire Safety. Their excavation of public records revealed that this “coalition” has just three members — a trio of giant companies manufacturing flame retardants. The organization was a lie, meant to deceive politicians and voters.
(These days the website has been mostly dismantled and simply refers visitors to the chemical lobby, the American Chemistry Council, which has set up a website responding to the HBO documentary: flameretardantfacts.com.)
Let’s be clear. The companies stonewalling safety regulation include giants like Exxon, BASF, DuPont and Dow Chemical, and I hope their executives squirm Monday evening as they watch “Toxic Hot Seat.”
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.