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Pete Flowers
Pete Flowers
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Flame retardants: lifesavers or industry hype?

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For decades we have been treating all sorts of consumer products with chemicals labeled “flame retardant,” and most people have accepted at face value that the treated products are much safer than those left untreated. As it turns out, this may not be the case, and in fact household items treated with flame retardant may make fires more toxic.

The Chicago Tribune, in its Sunday, May 6, edition, reveals the result of an investigation into the use of flame retardants, the industry that supports it and their questionable tactics, and an “expert” who is caught stretching the truth during testimony to various legislative groups.

(The link for the story is: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/flames/ct-met-flame-retardants-20120506,0,3214816,full.story or simply got to the Trib website: http://www.chicagotribune.com)

The article is well-researched – and frankly troubling. One of the issues the authors point out is one many of us have faced: the use of phony “grassroots” groups to promote an industry agenda. The one mentioned in the article is “Citizens For Fire Safety Institute,” the whole cloth creation of the industry’s lobbying firm.

Here in Illinois, when the battle to fight caps on med mal awards was raging in our legislature, we did battle with the same kind of high-sounding “citizens” groups that were nothing more than shills for the insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce. Among the more colorful were the “Civil Justice League” and “The Institute For Legal Reform.”

Beyond the industry-sponsored “grassroots” organization, the Tribune article goes on to describe in vivid detail the amount of flame retardant chemicals one can find in furniture in the average American home. A sofa, for instance can contain as much as 2 pounds of chemical retardant in its foam cushions. That’s in addition to the same sort of chemicals found in other furniture, bedding, and clothing in the typical household. The fear is that these chemicals, because of their toxicity, represent as great a danger in a fire as they do a benefit.

Fire safety is not an issue to take lightly. According to government figures, more than 3,500 lives are lost every year in this country to household fires, and more than 18,000 suffer injuries. The toll was far higher in decades past, so the introduction of different products designed to reduce the risk were hailed as major advances. Many of those innovations do save lives, and that would include the judicious use of flame retardants.

However, as the Tribune points out, sometimes what is presented as an advance in safety may not live up to its hype, and may in fact add to the overall dangers of a fire. Do yourself a favor and click on the link above. It’s a good, if unsettling, read about a subject most of us are unaware of, and about the tactics an industry will employ to advance its own agenda.