HBO inflames phony chemical menace controversy

By   /   November 27, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

BOO! CHEMICALS! Somebody at HBO must have loved those old stories, because the channel ran an hour-and-a-half documentary Monday night on a danger we’ve all been missing: killer couches.

By Jon Cassidy |

They used to be staples of the nightly news, these stories warning of dangerous household objects, until they turned into a cliché and slipped into oblivion.

You’d stay up to see the silent killer the announcer had been teasing all night only to be disappointed by a special report on dryer fires.

Somebody at HBO must have loved those old stories, because the channel ran a 90-minute documentary Monday night on a danger we’ve all been missing: killer couches.

The message: Your furniture is stuffed with flame retardants, which do nothing to retard flame but might harm your child. Or give you cancer.

The documentary, called “Toxic Hot Seat,” is based on a 2012 investigative series published by the Chicago Tribune that won a pile of journalism prizes.

The series featured some great reporting. There was a doctor who tells a phony, heart-rending story about a burn victim, and he gets exposed by the journalists, who went digging through decades of autopsy records to prove their point. There were some industry front groups that got revealed as, umm, industry front groups. There was a Swedish scientist who comes in for criticism for writing in Swedish, as though it were some obscurantist tactic.

But the heart of the story is missing: it depends on chemophobia where the science should go.

Here’s the story the journalists and the HBO documentary try to tell: Flame retardants in furniture don’t work and might give you cancer, but are there due to greedy chemical companies, the tobacco industry and Kim Jong-Il, which teamed up to dupe everyone into thinking they work.

OK, I made up the part about Kim Jong-Il, but axes of evil should always have three members.

Here’s the problem with that story: Flame retardants do work, somewhat, and it’s not even theoretically possible to get cancer from your couch, no matter how long you sit in it.

The flammability debate turns out to be a boring one about degrees of effectiveness. In heavy concentrations, flame retardants work great. In lower concentrations, such as you might find in household furniture, their effectiveness is questionable.

Put another way, the polyurethane typically found in furniture padding is highly flammable, even after it’s been treated with flame retardants.

Do the flame retardants in a typical piece of furniture have any effect?

“You get maybe a slight benefit of a few seconds of ignition time, something like that,” says Vyto Babrauskas, the scientist whose work forms the backbone of both the documentary and the series.

Yet here’s how the Tribune presented his views last year: “(A)s Babrauskas explicitly noted in his study, research shows that the flame retardants in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs do not slow fire.”

As Patricia Callahan, one of the three Tribune reporters, says it again in the documentary, “As far as furniture goes, we looked into it and we found that government scientists and independent scientists have looked at this over and over again and have found that they provide no meaningful benefit for consumers. And so, it’s, you know, they don’t work.”

Notice the telescoping technique, where the careful hedges and qualifications get collapsed into the story the journalists need to tell. “It’s, you know, they don’t work.”

They might not work that well, but then again, if you’ve ever seen a Styrofoam cup in a campfire, you might be glad if the couch you just dropped your cigarette on took a few seconds before doing that.

Outside of the debate over laboratory tests results, there’s plenty of real-world evidence for the effectiveness of common flame retardants.

In 1974, California adopted a standard known as Technical Bulletin 117 and it soon became a de facto national standard, due to the size of the California market (check the tag under the chair you’re sitting on now).

In California, upholstered furniture fires dropped from 2,500 per year to 800 per year between 1974 and 1994. Nationwide, upholstered furniture fires fell from 36,850 in 1980 to 8,840 by 2002.

The journalists try to wave this way, asserting that “government experts say declining smoking rates and increased use of smoke detectors have played major roles in reducing fire deaths and damage.”

Both matter, but neither comes close to explaining a drop of that magnitude.

According to records from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Census, the adult smoking population declined by 10.6 percent between 1980 and 2002, from 54 million smokers to 48.3 million. As less than half of upholstered furniture fires are due to smoking materials, the decline in smoking population only explains a drop of 5 percent or 6 percent, not the actual 76 percent drop.

Smoke alarms are important, too. A U.K. study found that when alarms detected a fire, there were only four deaths out of 1,000 fires, compared with nine deaths when no alarm detected the fire. The same study found that only 11 percent of home fires in one year were detected by smoke alarms, even though two-thirds of homes had a smoke alarm.

Those numbers work out to a 6 percent reduction in death against a baseline of nobody owning any smoke alarms.

Five percent, 6 percent – clearly, the numbers don’t explain what the journalists and HBO say they do. There’s another factor that has caused a radical drop in furniture fires, and until somebody can offer a better answer, it’s reasonable to figure that it’s flame retardants.

In questioning the effectiveness of flame retardants, the journalists at least have an argument, but in suggesting that the chemicals are dangerous, they have none.

The Tribune series doesn’t get into health risks, or dangerous exposure levels, because there’s nothing to report. The documentary is content to wave around scary chemical names and quote a few dubious statistics.

Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne puts the question into context.

“We are in the middle of a giant uncontrolled experiment on American children,” he says on camera. “It’s not just with flame retardants. It’s with scores of these toxic chemicals…”

Toxic – there’s the scare word. If they were serious, they’d talk about exposure levels, but they never do.

Modern flame retardants are made with a compound called decaPDBE, which is in fact toxic, but less toxic than table salt, baking soda, or hydrogen peroxide.

The scientific method for testing toxicity is to jam rats full of a substance and see what breaks first. With PDBEs, the rats eventually develop some thyroid troubles at around the same dosage where table salt produces birth defects.

To get the same dosage in a human, one observer noted, you’d have to eat several couches full of flame retardants every year.

Again, if you go outside the laboratory, you find more support for the pro-flame retardant position. Commercial airliners have PDBE concentrations “several orders of magnitude greater than air concentrations measured for occupationally exposed workers and typical levels found in U.S. homes,” according to a recent Harvard study. That’s because they are packed with high-grade flame retardants.

Researchers expected to find that pilots and crews would have higher levels of the compound in their bloodstream, but a 2010 test of 30 airline workers found… nothing. Their blood was normal.

A 2012 Harvard study found that even on the airplanes with the densest concentration (95th percentile)of PDBEs, the exposure level was “less than 1 percent of the calculated maximum inhalation exposure limit.”

In other words, the riskiest places aren’t the least bit dangerous.

Despite the claims of the documentary, the CDC says, “We don’t know if PBDEs can cause cancer in people, although liver tumors developed in rats and mice that ate extremely large amounts of decaBDE throughout their lifetime.”

So to be on the safe side, don’t eat extremely large amounts of couch cushions, and if you do, quit now.

There is one new study published this year that asserts some evidence of a link between PDBEs and cognitive development troubles, but neuroscientific studies are even less reliable than journalism.

A new statistical study by Stanford’s John Ioannidis finds that 70 percent of published findings in the field of neuroscience are false positives, mainly because the studies themselves have so little power to assess the truth.

It’s not hard to understand why. For all their advanced equations, this is what neuroscientists do: feed some kids Cheerios, play Tic Tac Toe with a bigger group, then detect a three percent intelligence boost in the kids who ate Cheerios.

While “Toxic Hot Seat” and the Tribune reporters try to portray everyone outside of a group of Bay Area activists as industry shills or dupes, those shills and dupes have their opinions, too.

Chemical & Engineering News spent several months on its own report.

“Nearly every fire-safety, fire-test-standards, and flame-retardant-materials expert C&EN has spoken with over the past few months has expressed anger and frustration with (this) campaign and what they say is a foolish drive to weaken the TB 117 standard because of chemophobia,” the trade paper reported.

The International Association for Fire Safety Science heaped scorn on the Tribune’s reporters, writing that “they attempted to victimise a well-respected fire scientist, Dr. Margaret Simonson McNamee, precisely because she had provided a full audit trail showing how she had obtained her data, and what assumptions had been made. While there is insufficient data to unequivocally state that the risks or benefits of fire retardants outweigh one another, as scientists, we need to distance ourselves from the tangled web of ignorance, deceit and misreporting that often typifies public decision making — without our objectivity we have no tool for distinguishing right from wrong.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.


Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for