Flame Retardants Are Toxic & Haven't Been Shown to Save Lives. Why Are They Ubiquitous?

By Sarah Zhang | May 9, 2012 3:49 pm


“The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world.” So begins the Chicago Tribune’damning four-part series about spin and science, or lack thereof, in the flame retardants industry. Flame retardant chemicals have become so ubiquitous–there’s two pounds of the stuff in just the cushions of a large couch—because we’ve accepted the health dangers are worth the protection they provide against fire. Except, there is no scientific basis for the claim that flame retardants save lives.

Part three in the series, published today, is a systematic debunking of the few studies the industry has continuously cited as evidence for the efficacy of flame retardants. One obscure Swedish study, available only in Swedish, relied on flimsy evidence from just eight electrical fires caused by TVs. The peer-reviewed paper also lists a PR specialist among its authors. The lead scientist of another study has disavowed what he calls the industry’s “grossly distorted” flogging of his work, which looked at levels of flame retardants far above industry standard in household furniture. These examples and many more show how scientific authority has been manipulated for profit:

Industry has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact. They have been cited by consultants, think tanks, regulators and Wikipedia, and have shaped the worldwide debate about the safety of flame retardants.

Previous parts of the series investigated a phony consumer watchdog group and a doctor who lied in testimony on its behalf as well as tobacco companies who swayed fire marshal groups into advocating flame retardants to smooth over the PR problem of cigarette-lit fires. The industry has gotten very clever at hiding its PR work behind faces of authority, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re manipulating the truth.

At the Tribune’s website is a whole media package including videos, interactive graphics, and the original documents unearthed in the investigation. Check them out. The last part of this series will be published Thursday.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Andrew

    Just one small example of capitalism left unchecked, companies are not people if they were they would care about other people not profits.

  • scott

    Lobby power…some industry who makes the junk and some senators who own stock in it and keeps it on the law books….something like that I am sure.

  • littlejohn

    My first job out of journalism school was as a police and fire beat with a daily paper. I’ve watched a hell of a lot of buildings burn, and I can assure you that not only do those “fire-retardant” couches burn like kindling, but firemen generally won’t go near them without oxygen masks because the smoke is toxic.

  • julianpenrod

    Defenders of “science” insist constantly that “scientists” can’t lie, it’s absolutely impossible for a “scientist” to act cravenly or deceitfully or falsify information for profit. Of course, these shills would say, these “scientists'” words were manipulated by big business, the “scientists” themselves didn’t take part in this deception. So where were their denunciations like this in the press for the past half a century or more that these toxins were allowed to be proliferated? That this was all a scam perpetrated by the corporations to profit by petrochemical waste that really had no usefulness and would have called for expenditures to remove is apparent. That the same probably happened innumerably many times, and is even happening today, is obvious. That defendes of “science” will continue to insist that “scientists” never lie seems evident.

  • rob

    @julianpenrod: I’m sure you’ll catch a lot of flack for what you’ve said…mostly because it is not now, nor has it ever been true. I know of no scientist, or any other human, that is flawless (or shall we simply say always perfectly honest). But, irony of ironies, in THIS ISSUE of Discover, a continuance of their series “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…” actually highlights Science FRAUD! How lucky are you?

  • Sarah Zhang

    Apropos to @littlejohn’s comment, here’s why couches do burn so easily:

    “Modern cushions are made of polyurethane foam, and despite their fire resistant–covering (introduced in the 1970s to protect against smoldering cigarettes), they are basically solidified petroleum. A modern couch can release the heat equivalent of a 3 million watt lightbulb. The fire doesn’t burn the couch so much as melt it, like a marshmallow over a campfire. Flaming liquid drips onto the floor, forming fiery puddles, some of which burn through the carpet. Pharr squiggles out of the room, dragging his camera. Curtains drop burning fragments that in turn start their own flames. The couch across the room catches fire, although no other source of fire has touched it.”

    — from our Nov’ 11 feature on the science of arson http://discovermagazine.com/2011/nov/12-spark-truth-science-bring-justice-arson-trials/


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar