Maine lawmakers have been working over the last several months on a bill — LD 182 — that would ban the sale of new furniture containing flame retardants. Their actions are no doubt driven by a desire to reduce people’s exposure to chemicals, and while the intentions are laudable, the science shows the outcome may leave Mainers more vulnerable to fires with no discernible benefits to human health.
The bill is touted as necessary to protect firefighters from exposure to harmful chemicals. And that is more than understandable. We all want to protect the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us. After all, these incredibly valuable members of our community appear to be at increased risk of developing some cancers. And it’s understandable to want to draw connections between chemicals and an apparent rise in cancer rates.
And sometimes research contributes to the confusion. A recent small-scale pilot study on 12 San Francisco firefighters, for example, showed elevated blood levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PDBEs, a flame retardant no longer being used. The reason for elevation and its health significance are unclear, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control emphasizes that: “The presence of an environmental chemical in people’s blood or urine does not mean that it will cause effects or disease. The toxicity of a chemical is related to its dose or concentration, in addition to a person’s individual susceptibility. Small amounts may be of no health consequence, whereas larger amounts may cause adverse health effects.”
The problem is that smoke from residential fires contains many known carcinogens. An important question is whether the presence of flame retardants alters the composition of the smoke to make firefighting more hazardous. The data available to date show that this is not the case. If anything, the research shows just the opposite. A study by Dr. Matthew Blais of Southwest Research Institute found no difference in the release of carcinogenic chemicals, such as dioxins and furans, after burning flame-retarded foam and foam without flame retardants, typical of the foam used in upholstered furniture.
Neither these findings nor the fact that flame retardants are already subject to rigorous review by federal and international regulators has stopped well-meaning advocates from pushing legislators to remove these chemicals from upholstered furniture. Ironically, such a move is not without health and safety risks. My colleagues in the fire science arena have demonstrated through numerous studies that flame retardants play a critical role in providing people with important escape time once a fire is underway. In some instances, the flame retardants stop the fire from even taking off.
In fact, Blais and his colleagues at the Southwest Research Institute analyzed burn data from a National Institute of Justice arson study and found that when flame retardants are used in couches, the fire was delayed by six to seven minutes, compared with three minutes for couches without flame retardants. Notably, Blais found that when foam in the couch contained both a flame retardant and a flame-resistant cover, the fire quickly self-extinguished.
During this extended time that flame retardants provide, presumably a smoke detector is going off, and those affected have time to escape the fire. This additional time is extremely important for all of us, but it is particularly important for vulnerable populations, such young children and the elderly.
Given this information, any broad attempt to broadly ban flame retardants from upholstered furniture is extremely shortsighted. This is particularly true given that flame retardants, like all chemicals, are already subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies around the world. So, we do not have to choose between chemical safety and fire safety — we can have both.
Dr. Tom Osimitz is a board-certified toxicologist and founder and principal of Science Strategies. He is also chair of the Science Advisory Council for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance.