Toxic Hot Seat: Flame-Retardant Chemicals and You

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  • By Andrew Mackie

I don’t know if you caught the ‘Toxic Hot Seat’ documentary on HBO the other night.


It’s basically an expose on the use of flame-retardant chemicals in our furniture, mattresses and clothing.


Highly worth seeing.


It presents a mostly maddening look behind the scenes of government regulation, industry lobbying, fake industry funded consumer interest groups and the risks of chemicals in our homes. 


There were moments where both Riva and I both had steam coming out of our ears. Children being paid to read emotional scripts (written by the chemical companies) in front of the review committee, ‘scientific studies’ being blatantly misrepresented… And so on.


But the history of the issue is fascinating.


It goes back in time to an era when almost half of North Americans were smokers. And when synthetic materials were starting to be heavily used in homes.


Given that 90% of house fires are caused by cigarettes, the tobacco industry was started to be asked to take some responsibility, and make their product safer.


Rather than do this, they chose instead to create a movement (that was ultimately successful) for other fire prevention measures.


This resulted in mandating the use of flame-retardant sprays on everything from furniture to children’s pajamas.


Unfortunately (for everyone) these chemical additives turned out to be pretty bad for people. Brominated and Chlorinated flame-retardants are proven to be carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and affect cognitive function.



And they’re everywhere.


Scary, right?


Now, nobody wants to have their home light on fire. Everybody wants their families and children to be safe. So the crux of the documentary was the debate over what’s more important, health or safety.


(and the fact that the flame-retardant chemicals actually don’t give you much extra time to escape a fire, if any…)


The obvious villains in this expose are the tobacco industry and the chemical companies.


And rightfully so.


But at the end of the day, one huge question was left unasked.


Why are we making furniture, mattresses and clothing out of synthetic foams and fabrics?


It’s no secret that these petro-chemical based materials, in addition to being to unhealthy to start with, are also extremely flammable.


So shouldn’t the furniture industry be taken to task as well?

Because there are other options.


Natural fabrics like cotton, linen and hemp don’t burn that well compared to nylons and polyesters.


Natural (100%) rubber foam doesn’t burn like synthetic foam.

Wool barely burns at all.


And the natural stuff doesn’t come with all the associated health risks.


So where do I find mattresses, furniture, carpets and clothing made from all these wonderful, natural, unsprayed materials, you ask?


I have at least one idea…