Big Tobacco: It's Not the Smoldering Cigarette, It's the Flammable Furniture! | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Big Tobacco: It's Not the Smoldering Cigarette, It's the Flammable Furniture!

Flame-retardant foam is found in couch cushions, breastfeeding pillows, TVs, and countless other household items. After a sweeping investigation, reporters from the Chicago Tribune conclude that these chemicals are not only ineffective but potentially dangerous to people and the environment. The flame-retardant industry and its allies have used deceptive tactics to convince the public that these chemicals are necessary, the Tribune found.

In today’s installment of this important multi-media series, we learn that the tobacco industry pushed for flame-retardant furniture to divert attention from its inability to design a viable “fire-safe” cigarette. Cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. Firefighters and burn victims were pushing for cigarettes that would extinguish themselves when not being smoked. Under pressure, big tobacco spent millions of dollars courting fire marshalls, aka, “our fire safety friends” in tobacco industry parlance. Big tobacco even had a mole in the National Association of State Fire Marshals–a former Tobacco Institute VP who volunteered as legislative director for the NASFM while working as a lobbyist for the Institute. The industry tried to divert attention from cigarettes to flame-retardants.

Some background on flame-retardants, from the Tribune’s investigation: Chances are, the foam seat of your chair is laced with flame-retardants. As the cushions age, the chemicals leech out and mix with house dust. Most American babies are born with traces of these compounds in their blood. Flame retardants are polluting the environment and may even be making people sick.

This might be a small price to pay if flame retardant foam saved lives or prevented horrific burns, but according to the latest tests, flame retardants don’t even work. In one experiment, a chair made with flame-retardant foam burned just as fast as an otherwise identical chair without the chemical–both were engulfed in flames in 4 minutes flat:

“We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection,” said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests at a laboratory outside Washington.

Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.

The previously undisclosed test results call into question the widespread use of flame retardants in household furniture. Some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and developmental problems. [ChiTrib]

The flame retardants may not even be necessary. Experts say that smoldering cigarettes are responsible for the majority of furniture fires. Most furniture coverings are already smolder-resistant. If the furniture industry wanted to save lives during fires, it would put a flame-resistant barrier layer between the covering and the core. These barriers are far more effective than flame-retardants and they can be made without chemicals, or with less toxic chemicals. The industry is balking, claiming that these barriers would make furniture uncomfortable. This excuse is hard to believe given that barriers are already standard on mattresses.

The Tribune investigation is an important piece of public service journalism that sounds the alarm about a major threat to safety, health, and the environment while holding powerful interests to account.

[Photo credit: eighteen1, Creative Commons.]