Lies, damned lies, and flame-retardant furniture

All this week, The Chicago Tribune is posting a multi-part investigative report about the fire-retardant chemicals that turn up in everything from the foam in our couch cushions, to the plastic casings on our television sets. Turns out, research shows these chemicals don't actually prevent fire deaths and injuries. Worse, research does show that these chemicals are dangerous to human health—especially in the quantities to which we are exposed. Dose makes the poison, but we're not talking about small doses here. As the Tribune so succinctly puts it: This isn't something where we measure exposure in parts per million, it's measured in pounds.

The Tribune has also done a very good job of documenting both the existence and history of a pattern of corporate lies and manipulation that has made sure these chemicals remained a mandated part of our lives even as science shows they aren't helping us.

The lies are infuriating, but the history part is particularly fascinating. After all, it's easy to understand why chemical companies would lie and manipulate politics in order to maintain a lucrative market for their products. But why does that market exist, to begin with? Behind the scenes, our continued exposure to these chemicals comes down to two key issues: One poorly designed product safety test that encouraged heavy use of flame-retardants in foam instead of small doses of safer chemicals in fabric, and a 1970s-era attempt to deflect negative press away from cigarettes.

The problem facing cigarette manufacturers decades ago involved tragic deaths and bad publicity, but it had nothing to do with cancer. It had to do with house fires.

Smoldering cigarettes were sparking fires and killing people. And tobacco executives didn't care for one obvious solution: create a "fire-safe" cigarette, one less likely to start a blaze. The industry insisted it couldn't make a fire-safe cigarette that would still appeal to smokers and instead promoted flame retardant furniture — shifting attention to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames.

But executives realized they lacked credibility, especially when burn victims and firefighters were pushing for changes to cigarettes. So Big Tobacco launched an aggressive and cunning campaign to "neutralize" firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco's cause as their own. The industry poured millions of dollars into the effort, doling out grants to fire groups and hiring consultants to court them.

Playing With Fire: The entire four-part series updated all this week.

So far, parts 1 and 2 have been published.

Image:Image: ghost chair, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wwworks's photostream


  1. Has the tobacco industry ever managed to engage in a shadowy campaign of disinformation and subversion that didn’t end up having dire consequences?

  2. Build your furniture from white oak, or buy white oak furniture from the Kenton chair shop.  A properly made windsor chair is more comfortable than any stuffed or padded chair, in my opinion.

  3. So, if we live outside of California, and don’t want furniture loaded with these flame-retardants, who can I buy such furniture from, especially in Colorado?

  4. Kind of funny that the state that puts labels on practically everything to warn people of carcinogens is responsible for mandating the use of these chemicals. 

    I mean, I do think California’s heavy-handed approach to these things is good, ultimately, but they need to be able to admit mistakes and repeal things when appropriate. 

    And if you think the stickers that say things contain chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer are ridiculous, try living in CA itself – the signs are so ubiquitous all you can do is ignore them. They serve no useful purpose. At least they aren’t causing further potential harm, though, like the fire-retardant chemicals.

  5. Funny point- in the discussion for Lance Armstrong’s post the other day about California cigarette tax (found here:, users were arguing about the tax per pack vs. the estimated health care cost of smoking per pack ($0.87/tax vs.  $15.10/cost). There was some argument about the validity of the latter number, as some smoker’s rights advocates felt that the number was artificially elevated because it was hard to distinguish the costs actually incurred by smoking (for example, just because a smoker gets lung cancer doesn’t mean it was directly caused by smoking- it could be a result of a thousand other variables).

    But the argument didn’t factor in firefighting costs. I wonder if there’s a way of determining how much smoking costs a community in extra firefighting costs, and then dividing that cost by the number of packs sold in that area over a period of time. Might give advocates of raising cigarette taxes some more ammunition…

    “Retired UW burn doctor telling tales to promote fire retardants”:except it was all made up

    “Testifying for California lawmakers last year, the retired Seattle doctor and former president of the American Burn Association drew gasps as he described a 7-week-old girl who was burned in a fire started by a candle while she lay on a pillow that lacked flame-retardant chemicals.”
    “They are lying,” said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

  7. I recall a gig constructing theater sets, when the fabric backdrops had to be slathered with toxic goop, as directed by law. Not good times. 

  8. When my son was younger I avoided baby pajamas for him because the law mandated that all baby sleepwear *must* be treated with flame retardants (and I was concerned about the health consequences from them). 

    I could never understand the logic as it always seemed that by the time time the helpless baby, alone in his/her crib, was surrounded by fire — really, how much good would anything short of an asbestos box do for the tyke?  Fire retardant, give me a break.  Talk about fear-mongering.  

    1. Fire retardant baby pyjamases, the only solution when your baby refuses to give up smoking in bed.

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