In the past several years, flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, pillows and other household products have become as common as the items themselves. Indeed, in many cases – and many states – the inclusion of these chemicals is now required by law. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune has revealed, however, that these laws were put into place on the back of fraudulent testimony, and against sound science showing that these chemicals are not only ineffective, but highly dangerous.
The star witness in support of flame retardants has been, for many years, Dr. David Heimbach. Dr. Heimbach specializes in telling stories of infants fatally and horribly burned due to the use of pillows, mattresses, and other products lacking flame retardants. His gruesome testimony leads legislators to disregard more abstract testimony about the long-term risks of these chemicals, including environmental and cancer risks.
The problem, however, is that Dr. Heimbach’s testimony has now been shown to be almost completely fabricated. He has also cited to a supposedly-independent community group who supports the use of flame retardants. This group was later shown to be simply an industry group made up of chemical manufacturers and created to promote their products. This group often publicly states that it is allied with various organizations of firefighters and victims, a complete fabrication. This same industry group pays the “fees” of Dr. Heimbach and other witnesses who testify before government bodies in support of the chemicals.
Studies on the flame-retardants commonly used in the U.S. have shown that they are linked to cancer, fertility problems, developmental disorders and neurological defects. Nor do they remain safely in the furniture and products where they are placed.
Instead, these chemicals leach out of these products and into household dust – where they create high levels of exposure for infants and toddlers crawling on floors and putting objects from the floor into their mouths. Although exposures for these young children are the worst, exposures have been rapidly and steadily increasing in all age groups. In the past four decades, blood levels of these chemicals have not only increased, but doubled – every two to five years. And although some chemicals are no longer used, blood levels haven’t gone down.
Yet the federal Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly allowed these chemicals into American products, often without even assessing the health risks. And it has approved and even promoted these chemicals despite the protests of its own scientists that they were dangerous to both humans and the environment, and despite the conclusion of the federal Consumer Protection Commission that these chemicals are ineffective and dangerous.
This has led to a continuing cycle – the chemicals are approved, questioned, and eventually withdrawn from use. Several have even been banned by the United Nations as among the worst and most dangerous chemicals on the planet. New, equally dangerous chemicals are then approved to take their place, and the cycle begins again.
Not only are these chemicals highly dangerous, but they are also not even effective. Since the 1980s, study after study has shown that these chemicals have literally no effect on household fires. In fact, when fires do occur, these chemicals make the smoke toxic, leading to increased injuries and deaths from the fire.
The industry typically cites to a single study from the 1980s in support of its claims of effectiveness – but that study’s author has publicly stated that the industry has distorted his findings. He asserts, like other scientists, that flame retardants in household goods and furniture simply do not work.
So why are these chemicals used? The answer is age-old: money. Annual demand for these chemicals has now topped 3.4 billion pounds. To get a sense of the volume of the problem, consider this: many of these chemicals are related to the pesticide DDT. When you choose organic fruits, you are avoiding a microscopic dose of pesticides. If you eat that fruit sitting on your couch, you are sitting on 2 pounds of a related chemical.
Our experienced products liability attorneys are appalled that this dangerous situation has persisted for decades. We urge our regulators and legislators, at all levels of government, to take action to ban these dangerous and ineffective products, for all of our safety.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago product liability lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.