(MintPress)—Flame retardants in furniture are taking some heat, as concern grows over toxic chemicals used to produce the products are being linked to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive issues. Critics say lobbying efforts from Big Tobacco are to blame for the problem, which new research suggests disproportionately effects children and families of color.
The fight to protect consumers by getting the chemicals out of furniture is very slowly gaining support, but faces some steep opposition from the corporate sector.
The origin of the problem
Decades ago, cigarette companies, facing public pressure over smoldering cigarettes starting house fires, decided to try and create a “fire-safe” cigarette, according to documents uncovered by the Chicago Tribune earlier this month.
When that project failed, the industry turned to furniture manufacturers, lobbying for the creation of flame retardant furniture to focus attention away from growing concerns expressed by firefighters and burn victims over cigarettes.
Big Tobacco next “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,” according to the Tribune.
The industry hired Peter Sparber, a former tobacco executive, to steer the fire marshal’s national agenda, requesting rules requiring flame retardant furniture.
Internal memos, speeches and strategic plans document the push behind Big Tobacco’s campaign to put toxic chemicals in American furniture.
A founding member of the fire marshals group has said he regrets taking the tobacco industry’s money, but the group “continued promoting flame retardant products even after it was clear that the chemicals inside were escaping, settling in dust and winding up in the bodies of babies and adults worldwide,” the Tribune found, even after evidence emerged linking the retardants to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
How toxic chemicals spread like wildfire
A law passed in California in 1975, referred to as TB 117 aimed to reduce fire deaths and injuries associated with upholstered furniture. It mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture must be able to resist a flame, like that from a cigarette lighter or a candle. Instead of manufacturing furniture specifically for California, furniture companies decided to make products to fit those standards in all 50 states and Canada.
Making foam flame retardant requires the use of a large amount of chemicals. As much as two pounds of flame-retardant chemicals are placed into the foam of each sofa.
The American Home Furnishings Alliance says that over 80 percent of furniture sold in the U.S. contains foam treated with flame retardant chemicals.
However, a groundbreaking 2011 study on flame retardants in furniture by researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that “Flame retardant (FR) additives are commonly used to meet regulatory requirements mandating certain levels of fire safety performance. Even though a wide variety of FR additives have been developed, for most man-made polymers halogenated FR chemicals have been the most frequently used. This is due to their cost, availability, and extensive industry experience with this class of additives. Until recent years, only the potential benefits of their usage have been considered by regulatory bodies and not the potential drawbacks.”
Scientific research has not only linked the chemicals to cancer in lab rats, but also say they potentially cause abnormal brain development in humans.
Some of the most dangerous chemicals have been phased out of use over the years, but much older furniture still contains them.
The authors of the Berkeley study also say the issue needs review by lawmakers and health officials. “The assumption held by much of the public, industry and scientists, is that any hazardous FR additives would be restricted from use in consumer products. However, in the United States, only chemicals in foods, drugs, and pesticides are regulated prior to reaching the marketplace. There is no requirement for health data nor sufficient authority to regulate other chemicals.”
Children of color affected disproportionately
A Duke University-led study of North Carolina toddlers which will be published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, suggests that exposure to potentially-toxic, flame-retardant chemicals may be higher in nonwhite toddlers than in white toddlers.
The study also suggests that exposure to the chemicals is higher among toddlers from a lower socioeconomic background.
The study, led by Dr. Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, tested 83 toddlers ages 12 to 36 months for levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which have been widely used over the last 30 years to reduce flammability in electronics and furniture.
The study explains that over time, the chemicals migrate into the environment and “accumulate in living organisms, where they can disrupt endocrine activity and impair thyroid regulation and brain development. Early exposure to PBDEs has been linked to low birth weight and impaired cognitive, motor and behavioral development,” the study found.
Children are exposed to the chemicals by ingesting them with food or dust particles, breathing them in from the air, or ingesting them through their mother’s milk while nursing.
It also relays that exposure to these chemicals have a lasting effect on children, referencing a 2010 study, which showed that children with high levels of exposure to PBDEs scored lower on infant development and preschool IQ tests.
While the study only looked at children, Stapleton told Time that it is very possible that adults are being exposed to these chemicals as well.
“It is unclear at this time why levels are higher in the nonwhite toddlers. It may be due to behavioral differences — contact with different treated products in the home, dietary differences or to differences in hand-washing, which may reduce exposure,” Stapleton said. ”We really need to determine why exposures are higher in minority and lower educational families.”
Stapleton suggests that both lawmakers and the industry take action in order to stop the detrimental effects chemicals are having on people. “Right now, it’s hard to determine what flame-retardant chemicals are in most products due to confidential business information that protects the companies’ proprietary rights,” Stapleton said. “Hopefully, this study’s findings will inform policymakers that we need better public access to this information.”
The push to take chemicals out of furniture
California state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat, has been pushing to change the law in California mandating that the retardants be placed in furniture.
But its not the first attempt by California lawmakers, who have been unsuccessful in such efforts five times previously.
While Leno’s most recent bill had the support from furniture makers, firefighter groups and doctors, it was shot down in committee. “All of them wanted the chemicals out of furniture, but the bill died in committee. Every lawmaker who voted against it had received campaign contributions from the chemical industry,” National Public Radio reports.
While Leno has been able to win support for the measure going door to door amongst the offices of his fellow lawmakers, “In the waiting room of the office I’m leaving is a lobbyist for the chemical industry. So they’ll have the last word,” he said.