THE BLOG

Up in Smoke: The Reality of Preventing Fire Deaths

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Generally, I'm a strong advocate for prevention. But what happens when your method of prevention creates its own set of risks? This is increasingly the case with flame retardants -- chemicals put into everything from couch cushions to televisions. We're exposed to them everyday and they're building up in our bodies, but are they doing more harm than good?

There are over 175 different types of flame retardants, according to Brominated Fire Retardants: Cause for Concern?, which are generally divided into classes that include the halogenated organics (usually brominated or chlorinated), phosphorus-containing, nitrogen-containing, and inorganic flame retardants. But, the halogenated flame retardants are currently the largest market group because of their low cost and high performance efficiency.

While halogenated flame retardants may be reducing fire-related risks, there is increasing concern that they introduce a wide spectrum of other risks to our health and environment that outweigh their fire suppression benefits. In animal studies in multiples species these chemicals cause cancer, neurological impairments like hyperactivity, reproductive problems like lower sperm count, microtestes, thyroid problems, and endocrine disruption.

Quick Facts:

  • The chemical industry is not required to do any health studies before introducing these chemicals into our homes.

  • Fire retardant chemicals can make up to 10% by weight of foam in furniture and baby products and 30% plastic in electronics. Consequently, pounds of these chemicals are found in our baby products and furniture. They leak out into dust, pets, humans, and the environment.

  • Fire retardant chemicals don't stop fires; they slow them for an estimated six to twelve seconds.

  • California is the only State that requires flame retardants in foam products like nursing pillows and other juvenile products. Californians also have the highest body burdens in the world of pentaBDE, a potent endocrine disrupting toxic chemical.

  • According the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there is no evidence that these toxic chemicals actually reduce fire deaths in California. Fire deaths declined by 38% in California from 1980 to 1999; but the decline was even greater in other states that don't have standards leading to the use of these toxic chemicals.

Overall, we are taking tremendous risks with our children, ourselves and our environment for no measurable benefit in fire protection.

Last week The Environment Report hosted a comprehensive, five-part investigation into one of the largest classes of halogenated flame retardants, PBDEs. Rebecca Williams examined our exposure to these chemicals and what it might mean for our health, the politics and policy behind our use of these chemicals, and the alternatives.

Fire prevention is important, but are we going about it the wisest way? Listen to this revealing series and let me know what you think.

PART 1 - Listen!

Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of products in our homes and offices and schools. The chemicals can slow the spread of fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. And they're getting into our bodies. In this first of the five part series - Rebecca Williams tries to find out what's in the products in her own home.

PART 2 - Listen!

You have flame retardant chemicals in your body. They're toxic. Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world. The chemicals are in the dust in our homes and offices and schools. And they're showing up in our food. In this second of the five part series - Rebecca Williams takes a look at what these exposures might mean for our health.

PART 3 - Listen!

Flame retardant chemicals are in many of the products we use. They help slow the spread of fire. But some kinds of these chemicals are building up in people and in pets and wildlife. And hundreds of studies are suggesting the chemicals could be linked to problems with brain development, and thyroid and fertility problems. In this third part of the five part series - Rebecca Williams takes a look at why our federal government has not banned them.

PART 4 - Listen!

Flame retardant chemicals are added to hundreds of products in our homes and offices to slow the spread of fire. But during a fire, the fumes can cause problems for firefighters. In this fourth part of the five part series - Rebecca Williams reports on some firefighters say flame retardants can make their jobs more dangerous.

PART 5 - Listen!

Flame retardant chemicals help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals are building up in people. And hundreds of studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, and thyroid and fertility problems. In this final part of the five part series - Rebecca Williams reports on the alternatives to these chemicals.

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