Big Tobacco’s Role in Pushing Flame Retardants

In the Chicago Tribune’s recent investigative series on flame retardants, they uncover the role of Big Tobacco in pushing for flame retardants—harmful chemicals that pose neurological and reproductive problems—in a wide variety of furniture and baby products. Tasked with reconfiguring cigarettes to be more “fire-safe,” the tobacco industry instead decided to shift the blame to easily ignitable furniture and products and the idea of flame retardant furniture was born.

In the 1980s, the tobacco industry launched a campaign that pushed for flame retardants being added to furniture and wooed the National Association of State Fire Marshals to their cause. The Tribune discovered the arrangement buried in some 13 million documents released by Big Tobacco following lawsuits won by smokers.

With the backing of the fire marshals, the tobacco industry was successful in pushing legislation that would require flame-retardants in furniture in 1992. And, notes the Tribune: “The fire marshals organization continued promoting flame retardant products even after it was clear that the chemicals inside were escaping, settling in dust and winding up in the bodies of babies and adults worldwide. The marshals continued even after flame retardants were linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.”

Today, flame retardants are widespread in couches, carpet padding, crib mattresses, car seats and even nursing pillows. Some of these toxic flame retardants being used in children’s products have been banned, according to a study done last year. With the rise in exposure has come a staggering increase in the levels of flame retardants in children’s blood. A study by the Environmental Working Group found that the levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs, the technical name for flame retardants) are 2.8 times higher in children than mothers, In some cases, children’s PBDE levels exceeded concentrations found in adults with high workplace exposure, such as recycling workers and carpet installers.

And as the Tribune series notes, flame retardants not only pose serious dangers to consumer health, but tests reveal that they are ineffective at preventing fires. They write: “Mattress manufacturers already use flame-resistant barriers to meet national fire-safety standards. These barriers are typically made of chemical-free materials or safer chemicals than those commonly added to foam.”