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Panic in the Bedroom: Activist Group Warns of Night-time Catastrophe

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If there were an award for the goofiest-named activist group, "People For Clean Beds" would be a contender. Who isn't for clean beds - or clean dishes, or clean underwear? People for Clean Underwear - who wouldn't join?

But the dirty linen in this case is not so much the state of the bed rather than the bed itself, specifically the mattress. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) established new federal fire safety regulations on July 1st that it argues will save hundreds of lives and thousands of injuries each year from mattress fires.

People for Clean Beds on the other hand, believe the chemicals required by the new standards, "could harm or kill up to 300 million people" over the next forty years. Assuming the worst possible outcome of that prognosis (kill), a good night's sleep will prove deadlier than AIDS and the Black Death combined.

Instead of being laughed at for having both a goofy name and a goofy message, People for Clean Beds is being treated as a legitimate scientific source: CBS and NBC affiliates across the country have been roused to wonder whether a safety standard designed to save lives could, as CBS 2 in Chicago asked, "make you sick." (See also, CBS Philadelphia, CBS Phoenix, CBS Sacramento, NBC Missoula, and NBC Butte/Bozeman.

The point of the new safety standard is that if you subject a conventional mattress to an open flame, say from a cigarette lighter or candle, the result is... whoosh: in a few minutes the fire can emit enough heat to generate a flashover (1000 plus kilowatts - leading to ambient temperatures of 1100 plus Fahrenheit). A flashover is where everything in a room spontaneously ignites - and it is a point of no escape for either the occupants of the room or the firefighters trying to battle the blaze. In fact, flashover is one of the leading causes of firefighter deaths - especially as it is a precursor to structural collapse. (For more information, see Paul Grimwood's "Flashover - a firefighter's worst nightmare!" from firetactics.com [pdf].

Delaying the point of flashover is, therefore, a huge step towards saving lives; the new standard requires mattresses emit a fraction of the heat that would ordinarily trigger a flashover and to not exceed this level for thirty minutes. The CPSC estimates that this could end up saving between 240 and 270 deaths and between 1,150 and 1,330 injuries per year.

Before establishing this standard, the Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted extensive testing [pdf] of the chemicals needed to meet it - using conservative measures of risk and factoring in mattress aging and adverse conditions, such as bedwetting. It found no appreciable risk from any of the chemicals used: the exposures are miniscule, and some of the chemicals have very low or negligible toxicity to begin with; moreover, most of the chemicals are used inside the mattress. The one scary fire retardant, pentabromodiphenyl oxide, which was once used to treat foam, and did present health risks, is no longer manufactured or used.

And while many of the local TV segments focused on the claims that some workers became ill at a mattress plant in Janesville, Wisconsin after they started using the chemicals, the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a two-month investigation of the plant and concluded that the workers were not exposed to hazardous levels of any chemical, let alone fire retardants.

But none of this has had any impact on People for Clean Beds, which continues to talk of a major public health disaster, and continues to get media attention with soundbites noting that one ingredient in fire resistant treatments - boric acid - is used in roach killer.

That's a bit like announcing that table salt is dangerous because it can kill snails. Humans quickly excrete boric acid without any ill effects, even at levels far higher than are ever likely to be encountered in the environment; insects have, on the other hand, no such intestinal luck. Naturally, roach killer in your bed makes for a great on-air revelation; but explaining why cockroach physiology differs from humans - well that just doesn't work on local TV.

The group also contends that another fire retardant chemical, antimony, has been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), citing one study from 1998. The CPSC refer to seven studies from 1995 to 2003 as well as expert panels in the U.S. and Europe, which all found that there was no credible evidence linking the chemical with SIDS. Nevertheless, People for Clean Beds is treated as a source of equivalent weight to the CPSC.

The real evidence that reporters are asleep on the job does not come from the jumble of junk science about chemical poisoning, but the fact that People for Clean Beds is run by a rival mattress manufacturer with a hefty economic stake in scaring people about buying mattresses that meet the new regulations.

Mark Strobel founded "People for Clean Beds" specifically to oppose the new fire safety requirements. He manufactures beds, which are exempt from the regulations and, as a consequence, can only be purchased with a doctor's prescription. He has no apparent scientific background beyond a BS degree. It's also not clear that anybody but Mark Strobel is involved in running "People for Clean Beds."

What is clear is that if you scare people into thinking that the new regulations will cause them harm, you raise the odds of more people getting a prescription for a Strobel Bed.

Conflict of interest anyone?

The one other issue missing from the coverage also concerns ethics. We know people have died and suffered horrible injuries from flashovers created by mattress fires; we know that people will continue to die and suffer horrible injuries from flashover fires driven by mattresses that do not meet the new standards; but we have no demonstrable evidence that anyone will die or get sick from the chemicals behind the new fire safety requirements. People for Clean Beds is free to claim whatever it wishes to claim; but the media have a duty to consider the risk to the public from misleading information. The hypothetical should not be put on an equal footing with the real. Otherwise, people have a real rather than a hypothetical chance of dying.

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