In the corporate battles for high-stakes public health contracts, a public relations parallel exists between manufacturers of vaccines and flame retardants. Both industries continually push for mandates by leveraging mortal fear into sales. Both insist their products are completely safe, despite compelling research to the contrary – along with uncounted consumers’ reports of adverse medical events such as autism.
Last December HBO’s documentary Toxic Hot Seat detailed the controversy over flame retardant chemicals used in U.S. furniture. The filmmakers assert that corporations “obscure the risks to public health and misrepresent chemical safety data by paying 'experts' to alarm legislators and the public” – and oppose state bills to eliminate toxic flame retardants from home furnishings.
HBO’s film, inspired in part by the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 investigative series “Playing With Fire,” makes the case that profiteering via manufactured fear is skewing public health decision-making. Filmmakers and reporters both noted similarities between the PR tactics of Big Tobacco and flame retardant manufacturers, saying the latter “waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.”
(Note: Age of Autism readers familiar with the Chicago Tribune‘s autism coverage might ask whether its reporters have been pejoratively labeled by critics as “pro-fire.”)
No federal law requires furniture to be flame retardant, but for decades most U.S. manufacturers have adhered to the California flammability standard outlined in Technical Bulletin 117. The document describes flame resistance limits for upholstery fillings such as foams, beads and feathers, when exposed to ignition sources such as a lit cigarette. Flame retardants work by generating reactive or additive compounds that operate alone or as synergists, interfering with combustion, insulating fuel sources, or diluting sources of fuel or oxygen.
Chemical compounds with names like Tris (TCDP) and Firemaster 500 are part of a multi-billion-dollar international industry. According to the American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance, the main uses are in electronics and electrical devices, building and construction materials, furnishings, and transportation (airplanes, trains, automobiles). Tris contains bromine, an element whose Greek name means “stench.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control website says bromine is used as a chlorine alternative in swimming pools, though at certain concentrations it can irritate skin, mucous membranes and tissues.