All Fired Up

Chemical Fire Retardants Inflict more Harm than Good

Every week, eight Canadians die in fires, 73% of which are domestic; this despite everything in our homes being doused in fire retardant chemicals. New evidence suggests that these chemical fire retardants are more damaging than the fires they are apparently not very good at preventing. North American children are born with the highest recorded level of flame retardant chemicals in the world. Now an exposé by the Chicago Tribune reveals that the existence of these chemical retardants is the result of a deceptive campaign waged by tobacco and chemical manufacturers.

Chemical flame retardant levels in North American homes aren’t measured in parts per billion or parts per million. They’re measured in pounds. Global demand for flame retardants has escalated to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009 from 526 million pounds in 1983. Demand is predicted to rise to 4.4 billion pounds by 2014 unless measures to stop the use of chemical flame retardants are put into place.

Big tobacco is behind it all (again)

Flame retardants are insidious. Brominated retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are known causes of cancer, neurological and developmental problems and reduced fertility. Researchers at Canada’s National Wildlife Research Centre have even found traces of flame retardants in gull’s eggs across the Great Lakes region.

The concept of fire retardants was created by none other than the tobacco industry. When concerns over fires started by cigarettes compelled the tobacco industry to create fire-safe cigarettes, the industry passed the buck. Instead of manufacturing cigarettes that wouldn’t cause fires, they claimed that the fuel source was far more at fault than the incendiary device. This meant that everything from carpeting to baby bedding had to be covered in fire retardant chemicals. This saved the tobacco industry money and created a whole new market for chemical manufacturers. So lucrative was this new field for both industries that they repeatedly provided false testimony and evidence that chemical fire retardants saved lives.

Falsified evidence

The study that the chemical and tobacco industries used to prove their case for fire retardants was one conducted by Vytenis Babrauskas in the 1980s. Here researchers set fire to building materials and furniture to test the effects of fire retardants. This study intended to show that chemical fire retardants gave home occupants a 15-fold time increase to make it out of the house safely. These results, say Vytenis Babrauskas, are not what his study showed. “Industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful,” he said, adding that the industry had ‘grossly distorted’ his findings. He went on to claim that chemical fire retardants do nothing to prevent fires; “The fire just laughs at them,’ he said. Not only do many studies show that fire retardants are ineffectual, some also show that retardants make smoke from fires even more toxic.

When lawmakers were considering a ban on fire retardants in 2011 Dr. David Heimbach, a burn expert, told a touching story about a 7-week old baby that had burned to death after a candle caused a fire in her crib. “Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital,” he said. He blamed the incident on a lack of fire retardants in her mattress. The story was so compelling that the panel ruled in favour of the chemical fire retardants. It’s not the first time that Dr. Heimbach has told a story about the crib death of a young infant. There was also his crib-death story about 9-week old infant to lawmakers in California in 2009, and one about a 6-week old told to Alaskan legislators in 2010. What’s the one thing that all these stories have in common? They’re not true. Evidence has shown that Dr. Heimbach never treated any infant burn victims. The group that paid for his testimony at these trails is none other than a trade association consisting of only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products, and Chemtura; the largest manufacturers of flame retardants.

Times are a-changing

The Tribune’s exposé has added to a growing body of protest against the use of damaging fire retardants. It’s not the first time either; in 2004 chemical bans on brominated flame retardants hoped to reduce the toxicity of fire retardants. However, these chemicals were replaced with other chemicals thought to be just as harmful; “Changing standards and codes is way better than banning chemicals, because there are always more chemicals,” says Arlene Blum, founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. She hopes that new non-toxic fire retardants and changes to policy will affect real change in the industry.

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