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The new asbestos? Toxic flame retardants in baby products & furniture

A fire hazard sign pictured on a lawn.
A fire hazard sign pictured on a lawn.
Greg Hero/Flickr

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In the 1970s, chemical flame retardants were banned from being used in children’s pajamas because of a connection found to cancer. New research now finds that the same chemical, Tris, is in furniture and baby products, such as nursing pillows, car seats, and highchairs. Critics of the chemical point to studies finding relation between the chemical and reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid problems, endocrine disruption, and cancer. Defendants of the fire retardant chemical say that the retardants have dramatically lessened deaths caused by upholstered furniture and that it is not clear that the flame retardant actually comes out of the product. In direct opposition, Tris critics claim the retardant has not actually increased fire safety. About a month ago, state Sen. Mark Leno’s Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act, which would create an alternative furniture standard that maintains fire safety without the chemical retardant, was voted down 8 to 1 in committee—critics say because of the powerful fire retardant chemical industry lobby. The Act will be up for a vote again in a year. How will California legislators—whose strict flammability rule has become a de facto national standard—juggle their efforts to protect Californians and their babies from being burned as well as from getting cancer?


Kathryn St. John, director of panel/product communications, American Chemistry Council

Arlene Blum, Ph.D., biophysical chemist and executive director, Green Science Policy Institute, a nonprofit that brings scientific data about toxic chemicals to policy makers; contributed to the elimination of Tris flame retardants in children’s pajamas in the 1970s