Fact Checker

March 2014

The HBO docudrama “Toxic Hot Seat” has been re-airing recently in some cities around the country. Because the film contains misinformation and inaccuracies about flame retardants, we have assembled the following facts to inform the public about how flame retardants provide a critical layer of fire protection and can help save lives.

Myth: Flame retardants are hazardous to your health.

FACT: All new flame retardants must be rigorously evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure adequate safety levels before they are manufactured for public use.

Myth: Flame retardants don’t stop the spread of fires.

FACT: Studies show that flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection. In one recent analysis that draws on data from a National Institute of Justice arson study, researcher Dr. Matthew Blais found that the flame retardants used in the study were effective in slowing the spread of fire and providing valuable escape time. Indeed, the flame retardants included in the furniture foam delayed the fire by three to four minutes. In tests of furniture with fire-protected cover and fire-protected foam, the initial flames died out and ultimately the furniture did not burn. These extra minutes allow valuable time for people to escape.

Fire statistics indicate that California’s requirement for open flame testing of furniture since the mid-1970s has improved fire safety in the state. Specifically, between 1982 and 1991—a time when California’s population increased by approximately 25 percent [1]—the number of furniture fires decreased by 50 percent and associated deaths decreased by nearly 83 percent. [2] In addition, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics indicate that fire fatality rates are much lower in California than in the rest of the United States and that fire fatalities are declining more rapidly in California than in the rest of the country. [3]

Myth: There is very little research supporting the assertion that flame retardants are responsible for stopping or delaying the spread of fire.

FACT: There are a number of studies that show that flame retardants are vital in increasing fire safety, including online demonstrations that show their efficacy. Still have questions? Watch Dr. Blais talk about some of the burn tests in his analysis.

Myth: The frequency and severity of fire caused by open flames are overstated, so upholstered furniture should not be required to meet flammability tests for open flame sources.

FACT: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported that between 2005 and 2009, “candles, matches and lighters were involved in 21 percent of fires and 12 percent of the deaths” in U.S. home fires that originated with upholstered furniture. The organization also reports that 28 percent of upholstered furniture fires originated from smoking materials.Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet safety standards established to help save lives. [4]

In their March 2013 comments regarding proposed changes to California’s furniture flammability standard TB 117, the NFPA states: “Reflecting these statistics, NFPA feels strongly that a fully comprehensive fire safety regulation of upholstered furniture must address the full spectrum of major fire scenarios including the open flame scenarios” Similar comments can be found in the TB 117 record from Underwriters Laboratories, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and at least twenty other individual fire scientists and fire safety experts. (Read more about NFPA’s position on the open flame test.)

Myth: Flame retardants add to the toxicity of smoke and cause adverse health effects in firefighters.

FACT: Smoke by its very nature is extremely toxic whether flame retardants are present or not. In a real fire situation virtually all smoke related deaths are caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Time to escape is a most important factor in fire safety, and this is what flame retardants help provide. When flame retardants are used, they help stop or slow the spread of fire, and that results in less toxic smoke. The Southwest Research Institute recently conducted a study comparing flexible polyurethane foams with and without flame retardants in furniture mock-ups to see if the chemicals influenced smoke toxicity. In this particular study, the flame retardants did not make smoke more toxic. In fact, the study found that there was no difference between the flame retarded foam and non-flame retarded foam when it came to the release of chlorinated dioxins and furans. (Learn more about the study here.) Irrespective of the presence or absence of flame retardants, fire, smoke, and associated residual products are hazardous, and it is essential that correct procedures are followed by all firefighters with respect to protective equipment and clothing during the fire and during subsequent clean up.

The concerns of firefighters should be taken very seriously, and NAFRA encourages more research on the effects of fire and smoke on the health and safety of first responders.

Myth: Industry refused to take part in the development of “Toxic Hot Seat.”

FACT: When the North American Flame Retardant Alliance was first contacted by a representative from “Toxic Hot Seat,” we were told that the documentary would take a fair and objective look at the open flame test in California. After a quick search online we found that the film was almost complete and promoted a one-sided view that would essentially lower fire safety standards in California. It quickly became clear that our limited participation would only serve to promote the false assertion that the documentary had some semblance of objectivity. Fire safety is an important issue, and we do not want to be a part of any production that prevents us from providing viewers with science-based information on this issue. So we declined to participate in the film. (Read our letter to the representative of “Toxic Hot Seat.”

Countering Misinformation on Flame Retardants

Myth: There is no scientific evidence supporting the assertion that flame retardants help stop or slow the spread of fire.

FACT: The research is clear that flame retardants can help save lives

The weight of evidence shows that flame retardants provide a critical layer of fire protection. A government study in Great Britain, for example, found the use of flame retardants in furniture and furnishings reduced the number and lethality of fires.

Organizations in the U.S. have concluded that robust fire safety standards are important. These agencies have established important fire safety standards that products should meet in order to be safe. In many cases, flame retardants are critical to meeting these standards.

The book Fire and Polymers VI: New Advances in Flame Retardant Chemistry and Science, presents peer-reviewed summaries of research from 32 national and international studies concluding the application of flame retardants in furniture, home insulation, and electronics helps prevent or slow the spread of fire. The book is the sixth edition on the subject.

Other research summaries, including a compelling burn test comparing furniture with and without flame retardants, are available on the American Chemistry Council website.

Myth: Flame retardants should not be used in products as the chemistries can have adverse health effects.

FACT: There is no need to sacrifice fire safety for chemical safety

New flame retardants are not brought to market until they have undergone a rigorous regulatory approval process. Flame retardants, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies around the world. Important fire safety codes should not be removed because of misinformation about chemical safety.

Myth: Manufacturers have used scare tactics instead of scientific fact to sell flame retardants.

FACT: Industry is dedicated to enhancing the scientific understanding of flame retardants

The three major manufacturers of flame retardants are committed to applying rigorous scientific processes in the analysis of their products. The American Chemistry Council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA)— representing the three manufacturers—engages independent scientific experts, the NAFRA science advisory council, to identify additional scientific research projects to assess the efficacy and safety of flame retardants. Studies supported by NAFRA have recently been accepted for publication in peer reviewed journals on fire science, bioaccumulation modeling, and efficacy. NAFRA funded studies will be presented at the Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting being held in March 2014.

[1] http://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/ca190090.txt.

[2] Damant GH. California’s Flammability Standards for Residential Upholstered Furniture – Twenty Years Later. Proc. Int. Conf. Fire Safety 19, 1 (1994).

[3] http://www.myfloridacfo.com/sfm/pdf/NFPA_Fire%20DeathByState_2011-10.pdf

[4] http://www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/Research/Fact%20sheets/UpholsteredFactSheet.pdf