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Fighting Fires

Flame-retardant chemicals ignite a debate over safety, efficacy, and fire-safety standards

by William G. Schulz
October 29, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 44


Credit: Shutterstock
Stock photo of a house in flames.
Credit: Shutterstock

The efficacy and safety of flame-retardant chemicals have caught the public’s attention. According to a Chicago Tribune series last spring, the chemicals pose unacceptable toxic hazards and do not work as advertised. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is assessing the chemicals in light of published studies showing that some have toxic effects and humans are widely exposed to them. EPA is gearing up for regulation. At the same time, several states have moved to control a handful of the flame retardants.

Central to the Tribune’s series are the assertions of chemist and mountaineer Arlene Blum, an activist devoted to eliminating use of flame-retardant chemicals in consumer products. Due in part to her work, California is revising its fire-safety standard for upholstered furniture and polyurethane foam. Fire-safety experts say the proposed revision will weaken the state’s standard, which for now is the de facto national standard.

Numerous fire-safety scientists question Blum’s tactics and her claims about the safety and efficacy of flame-retardant chemicals. They say Blum’s activism and accusations have squelched reasoned debate and spread unwarranted chemophobia. One of those experts, Gordon L. Nelson of Florida Institute of Technology, says Blum’s assertions about flame-retardant chemicals are not only false but also an affront to the many scientists whose thousands of peer-reviewed papers prove conclusively that the chemicals do work and that they have saved thousands of lives.

What follows are C&EN’s findings about Blum’s campaign against flame-retardant chemicals, the current and planned regulatory actions regarding the chemicals by states and federal agencies, and industry efforts to develop effective and safer alternatives. C&EN also examines the long-overdue efforts of the federal government to craft national fire-safety standards.

In all, the stories suggest that reasoned debate on the risks and benefits of flame-retardant chemicals can happen without lowering fire-safety standards or removing incentives for research efforts to invent new flame-retardant products that pose little to no hazard to people or the environment.


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