Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Once Again Fear Mongering Catches Fire, Spreads Fast

Yesterday, November 28, 2012 provided a striking example of how unfounded fear can spread across the Internet faster than a wildfire. The subject this time was flame-retardants (

e” href=”http://flameretardants.americanchemistry.com/Home-Furnishings/Fire-Safety-Requirements” target=”_blank”>FRs

), a class of chemicals that helps save lives and property during fires. FRs are not plastics, our usual topic, but they are used with plastics in numerous applications. This one is furniture—couches.

Yesterday a paper titled “Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out” was published online by Environmental Science & Technology, an American Chemical Society publication. The paper’s seven authors are from three well-known universities.

The paper’s abstract notes that California’s TB 117 furniture flammability standard is considered the main reason why chemical flame retardants (FR) are used in U.S. residential furniture. There is no federal standard.

It then says that since the phase-out of the flame-retardant PentaBDE in 2004-2005, alternative FRs have been used to meet TB 117, but it was unclear what they were. Therefore, the authors collected 102 samples of polyurethane foam from residential couches bought in the U.S. from 1985 to 2010, studied them, and found flame-retardants in 85% of them.

After naming the FRs found, and noting an increased number of FRs are now on the market, the abstract closes with, “Given these results, and the potential for human exposure to FRs, health studies should be conducted on the types of FRs identified here.”

The American Chemistry Council responded with this statement:

This study confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame-retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives. There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame-retardants found would cause any human health problems.

“Statistics show that home fires from open flame ignition sources are still a significant problem. Flame-retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards, and are designed to prevent fires from starting, and if a fire does occur, slow its spread and provide valuable escape time. Indeed, one recent analysis, using data from a National Institute of Justice arson study, showed flame retardants in upholstered furniture can provide valuable escape time. It’s important to remember that flame retardants

currently in use, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and national regulators around the globe.”

So it would seem open and shut, no big deal. But not if you saw the headline of Duke University’s press release: “Potentially Toxic Flame Retardants Found in Many U.S. Couches.” Mainstream media and the blogosphere saw it and reacted quickly. Before daylight on the East Coast, a wildfire of fear was spreading across the Internet, with headlines like these feeding the flames:

Toxic flame retardants common in household couches -Los Angeles Times‎

Dangerous for kids’ pajamas, safe for sofas? -Chicago Tribune‎

New Flame Retardants, Other Replacement Chemicals, Pose Same … Problems As Predecessors. -Huffington Post

Research: Toxic chemicals in your living room -CNN (blog)

Toxic Chemicals in Furniture Linked to Cancer, Other Health Risks … …Unfair to Manufacturers, Retailers. –MarketWatch/The Wall Street Journal

Duke: Bad chemicals in home sofas -Triangle Business Journal (blog)

All the stories convey variations of one message: Be afraid, be very afraid, in this case of flame-retardants, about which the average citizen knows virtually nothing. But don’t look in the press release or these articles for facts that would inform readers or at least justify the headlines. The last line of the abstract indicates that no studies that would generate the

facts have been done.

The release and the articles use words such as “may pose risks”, “probable”, “suspected”, and “has been linked to”, but never “this causes that.” Why bother? The writers already know their readers are afflicted with chemophobia or plastiphobia, so if the facts disagree with what they believe, they will ignore or deny them.Rich Text AreaToolbarBold (Ctrl / Alt+Shift + B)Italic (Ctrl / Alt+Shift + I)Strikethrough (Alt+Shift+D)Unordered list (Alt+Shift+U)Ordered list (Alt+Shift+O)Blockquote (Alt+Shift+Q)Align Left (Alt+Shift+L)Align Center (Alt+Shift+C)Align Right (Alt+Shift+R)Insert/edit link (Alt+Shift+A)Unlink (Alt+Shift+S)Insert More Tag (Alt+Shift+T)Toggle spellchecker (Alt+Shift+N)▼
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Yesterday, November 28, 2012 provided a striking example of how unfounded fear can spread across the Internet faster than a wildfire. The subject this time was flame-retardants (FRs), a class of chemicals that helps save lives and property during fires. FRs are not plastics, our usual topic, but they are used with plastics in numerous applications. This one is furniture—couches.
Yesterday a paper titled “Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out” was published online by Environmental Science & Technology, an American Chemical Society publication. The paper’s seven authors are from three well-known universities.
The paper’s abstract notes that California’s TB 117 furniture flammability standard is considered the main reason why chemical flame retardants (FR) are used in U.S. residential furniture. There is no federal standard.
It then says that since the phase-out of the flame-retardant PentaBDE in 2004-2005, alternative FRs have been used to meet TB 117, but it was unclear what they were. Therefore, the authors collected 102 samples of polyurethane foam from residential couches bought in the U.S. from 1985 to 2010, studied them, and found flame-retardants in 85% of them.
After naming the FRs found, and noting an increased number of FRs are now on the market, the abstract closes with, “Given these results, and the potential for human exposure to FRs, health studies should be conducted on the types of FRs identified here.”
The American Chemistry Council responded with this statement:
This study confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame-retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives. There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame-retardants found would cause any human health problems.
“Statistics show that home fires from open flame ignition sources are still a significant problem. Flame-retardants can be an effective way to meet fire safety standards, and are designed to prevent fires from starting, and if a fire does occur, slow its spread and provide valuable escape time. Indeed, one recent analysis, using data from a National Institute of Justice arson study, showed flame retardants in upholstered furniture can provide valuable escape time. It’s important to remember that flame retardants currently in use, like all chemicals, are subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and national regulators around the globe.”
So it would seem open and shut, no big deal. But not if you saw the headline of Duke University’s press release: “Potentially Toxic Flame Retardants Found in Many U.S. Couches.” Mainstream media and the blogosphere saw it and reacted quickly. Before daylight on the East Coast, a wildfire of fear was spreading across the Internet, with headlines like these feeding the flames:
Toxic flame retardants common in household couches -Los Angeles Times‎
Dangerous for kids’ pajamas, safe for sofas? -Chicago Tribune‎
New Flame Retardants, Other Replacement Chemicals, Pose Same … Problems As Predecessors. -Huffington Post
Research: Toxic chemicals in your living room -CNN (blog)
Toxic Chemicals in Furniture Linked to Cancer, Other Health Risks … …Unfair to Manufacturers, Retailers. –MarketWatch/The Wall Street Journal
Duke: Bad chemicals in home sofas -Triangle Business Journal (blog)
All the stories convey variations of one message: Be afraid, be very afraid, in this case of flame-retardants, about which the average citizen knows virtually nothing. But don’t look in the press release or these articles for facts that would inform readers or at least justify the headlines. The last line of the abstract indicates that no studies that would generate the facts have been done.
The release and the articles use words such as “may pose risks”, “probable”, “suspected”, and “has been linked to”, but never “this causes that.” Why bother? The writers already know their readers are afflicted with chemophobia or plastiphobia, so if the facts disagree with what they believe, they will ignore or deny them.
Path:

3 Responses to “Once Again Fear Mongering Catches Fire, Spreads Fast”

  1. I feel that the only way to counteract these phobias is to educate the public of the truth. The way to do this seems apparent… blast out the same headlines but with the facts. Example: headline: toxic chemicals in sofas story: would you like to know the facts about the effects of the chemicals in USA sofas? Here are the true facts…
    I suggest using the same fear creating headlines because otherwise you sadly do not get the attention of the public to read the true facts. I feel Industry has an obligation to address these issues otherwise the fanned flames of fear result in ridiculous laws and prohibitions against the very things best suited to the safety and needs of the public out of ignorance.
    What are we as an industry doing about this? How are we actively promoting the truth? My father taught me: do not complain about the way things are, if you do not like the way things are then go and do something to change them.
    Just my 2 cents worth

  2. A well written and informative article, however it leaves the reader with a bad case of depression just as most of the “scare first inform later” writings of major newspapers.
    Just as our president recently frightened voters by spouting negativisms about his opposition, this article demonstrates the negative power of the press.

    If it Bleeds, it leads, That is their motto.

  3. Industry associations such as SPI are sending out more positive messages than ever. There is no doubt that educating the public is needed so people don’t simply accept was the scare mongerers say. We are on the same track as you.
    Thank you for your suggestion on using the fear-mongering headlines to get attention. That is a very interesting tactic.

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