Flame retardants are abundant in household furniture, despite the fact that they only delay fires by a few seconds and the inhalation of such chemicals often kills victims before an actual fire. While manufacturers including IKEA have pledged to phase such chemicals out of their products, they are still abundant in foam cushions and global demand is surging. A Chicago Tribune series that launched this week reveals that the reason chemical makers make a mint selling their products to furniture companies is part fear and part tactics learned from the tobacco industry.

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So why can a large sofa contain as much as two pounds of chemicals? Start with the non-profit Citizens for Fire Safety, which purports to be a multi-stakeholder group that advocates for fire safety but is really a front group for the chemical industry. Its executive director, Grant Gillham, segued into his current career by advising tobacco company executives. The organization only has three members: Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products, companies that control 40 percent of the global market for flame retardant chemicals. Citizens for Fire Safety may only have 34 Facebook “Likes” at last count, but the organization has received millions of dollars that pays for “expert witnesses” to fly across the country and present testimony to state legislature committees mulling bans on flame retardant use.

The increased use of flame retardants date back to when California regulators adopted a rule in 1975 that only required manufacturers to burn a small amount of foam to test for fire safety instead of igniting an entire piece of furniture. Under the testing guidelines, foam only needs to be held to a small flame for 12 seconds, so the easiest way for manufacturers to pass the test is to load the chemicals in cushions. Meanwhile the tobacco industry wanted to shift the public’s attention from cigarettes as a cause for fire accidents and deaths. Big Tobacco worked with chemical companies to distort science and recruit fire officials who would campaign for their cause while vilifying opponents as elite environmentalists.

In recent years, California has become ground zero in the battle between advocates who want to reduce the amount of chemicals in homes and companies defending their turf. One of Citizens for Fire Safety’s most recent tactics has been playing the racial card by recruiting an activist who testified that minority children will burn to death if flame retardants were eliminated from household use. Another witness, acclaimed burn surgeon Dr. David Heimblach, has provided vivid and heart wrenching testimony about child burn victims not backed up by accounts in public records.

So toxic chemicals still find their way into most furniture, but do not count on the EPA to step in anytime soon. The agency still allows new flame retardants to enter the market and has even promoted one of them as “eco-friendly.”

Via Chicago Tribune

Photos courtesy Wikipedia (J. Samuel Burner, DouglasGreen)