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A Crusade Against Toxic Couches

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Can't See the Couch For the Forest
Can’t See the Couch For the Forest

Yes, your couch, and chairs, and bed, and so on, is probably contributing to your mortality, and the ill health of your family and friends as well. The sad part is that the EPA is so toothless it cannot stop this travesty from happening. Occasionally, the EPA can regulate some toxic chemical, after enough people die from it, but never before.

Kudos to Dr. Arlene Blum for her diligence bringing the topic to our attention. Now the question is, what are we going to do about it? 

Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist who conducted many of the best-known studies of flame retardants, notes that foam is full of air. “So every time somebody sits on it,” she says, “all the air that’s in the foam gets expelled into the environment.” Studies have found that young children, who often play on the floor and put toys in their mouths, can have three times the levels of flame retardants in their blood as their parents. Flame retardants can also pass from mother to child through the placenta and through breast milk.

The effects of that exposure may be hard to detect in individual children, but scientists can see them when they look across the population. Researchers from the Center for Children’s Environmental Health, at Columbia University, measured a class of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in the umbilical-cord blood of 210 New York women and then followed their children’s neurological development over time. They found that those with the highest levels of prenatal exposure to flame retardants scored an average of five points lower on I.Q. tests than the children with lower exposures, an impact similar to the effect of lead exposure in early life. “If you’re a kid who is at the low end of the I.Q. spectrum, five points can make the difference between being in a special-ed class or being able to graduate from high school,” says Julie Herbstman, the study’s author.

There are many flame retardants in use, the components of which are often closely held trade secrets. Some of the older ones, like the PBDEs, have been the subject of thousands of studies and have since been taken off the market (although many of us still have them in our furniture). Newer ones like Chemtura’s Firemaster 550 are just starting to be analyzed, even though it is now one of the most commonly used flame retardants in furniture.

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

(click here to continue reading Arlene Blum’s Crusade Against Toxic Couches – NYTimes.com.)

the sad thing is: the fire retardant doesn’t even really help in a real-world fire:

That, after all, is the reason TB 117 exists — to keep people from dying when their couch catches on fire. “Deaths caused by furniture fires dropped from 1,400 in 1980 to 600 in 2004; a 57 percent reduction,” Chemtura wrote in response to my questions.

Three years ago, Blum contacted Babrauskas1 and invited him to attend a keynote address she was giving at a scientific meeting in Seattle. Afterward, they went on a hike. By the time the day was over, he had become her most potent ally in the battle against TB 117. It turned out that Babrauskas felt his study results had been distorted. He used a lot of flame retardants, he says, far more than anyone would ever put in a piece of furniture sold to consumers. “What I did not realize would happen is that the industry would take that data and try to misapply it to fire retardants in general,” he says.

In Babrauskas’s view, TB 117 is ineffective in preventing fires. The problem, he argues, is that the standard is based on applying a small flame to a bare piece of foam — a situation unlikely to happen in real life. “If you take a cigarette lighter and put it on a chair,” he says, “there’s no naked foam visible on that chair unless you live in a horrendous pigsty where people have torn apart their furniture.” In real life, before the flame gets to the foam, it has to ignite the fabric. Once the fabric catches fire, it becomes a sheet of flame that can easily overwhelm the fire-suppression properties of treated foam. In tests, TB 117 compliant chairs catch fire just as easily as ones that aren’t compliant — and they burn just as hot. “This is not speculation,” he says. “There were two series of tests that prove what I’m saying is correct.”

Before Blum met Babrauskas, the conventional wisdom was that the clash over flame retardants was a conflict between two competing public interests — the need to protect people from furniture fires and the need to protect them from toxic chemicals. But the more Blum studied the safety benefits of flame retardants, the more elusive their benefits seemed to be.

and the lobbyists for the chemical industries took a page from the tobacco companies, and dug in for a long battle against consumers, and health in the name of profits:

California Senate Bill 147, which would have directed the Bureau of Home Furnishings to develop fire-safety standards for furniture that does not require flame retardants, something along the lines of a yet-to-be-adopted federal standard developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that tests whether furniture ignites when exposed to a smoldering cigarette. (Focusing on the entire piece of furniture, rather than the foam, allows manufacturers to use nonchemical solutions like barriers and less-flammable fabrics.) The bill had what seemed like a bulletproof array of supporters — dozens of organizations representing health officers, firefighters, furniture makers and environmental groups. Only three people spoke against it; all three had been compensated by Citizens for Fire Safety. One witness was David Heimbach, a burn doctor at the University of Washington who told a moving story about a 7-week-old baby girl he treated the year before. The baby’s mother had placed a candle in her crib, he said, and the candle fell over, igniting a pillow.

“She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital,” he told the senators. He asked them to do “anything to stop little children from being burned.”

But it seems there was no such baby, no such candle and no such pillow. Reporters working for The Chicago Tribune, which published a four-part investigation of the flame-retardant industry in May, could find no record of any infant who matched Heimbach’s description. Heimbach’s lawyer, Deborah Drooz, says that he changed the details of the story to protect patient identity. (The Tribune reporters did find a baby that died in a fire caused by an overloaded electrical outlet — circumstances that have little to do with flame retardants.) In the end, eight of the nine committee members voted against the bill. Those eight had received a total of $105,500 from chemical companies since 2007.

(click here to continue reading Arlene Blum’s Crusade Against Toxic Couches – NYTimes.com.)

Any Questions?
Any Questions?

Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this summer:

The world’s leading manufacturers of flame retardants faced scathing criticism Tuesday from U.S. senators angered by what they called the industry’s misuse of science, misleading testimony and creation of a phony consumer group that stoked the public’s fear of house fires.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pointedly asked one chemical company official: “Don’t you owe people an apology?”

The Tribune series, published in May, revealed how the tobacco and chemical industries engaged in a deceptive, decades-long campaign to promote the use of flame-retardant chemicals in household furniture, electronics, baby products and other goods.

Those efforts have helped load American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.

(click here to continue reading Flame retardants: Chemical companies face Senate criticism over flame retardants – Chicago Tribune.)

scathing criticism, and yet nothing substantive has happened yet.

“Generations of Americans have been asked to tolerate exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in their furniture in the name of fire safety,” Senator Dick Durbin said when he led a hearing on the chemicals in July. At the same hearing, James J. Jones, an administrator with the E.P.A., cited flame retardants as “a clear illustration” of all that is wrong with the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that governs the use of chemicals. Several states, including New York, have proposed bans on chlorinated Tris. (So far unsuccessfully, for the most part.)

Abandon All Chairs Ye Who Enter
Abandon All Chairs Ye Who Enter

Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe reported even earlier:

Dr. Heimbach’s passionate testimony about the baby’s death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty.

But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn’t true.

Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn’t exist.

Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.

Heimbach is not just a prominent burn doctor. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants.

His testimony, the Tribune found, is part of a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.

The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a Tribune review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents.

(click here to continue reading Chemical manufacturers rely on fear to push flame retardant furniture standards – chicagotribune.com.)

Footnotes:
  1. fire-safety scientist named Vytenis Babrauskas, who is considered a leading authority on furniture flammability []

Written by Seth Anderson

September 9th, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in government,health,science

Tagged with ,

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