Chemical Fire Retardants – The Monster In Your Bed

As children, many of us at one time or another, imagined there might be a monster under our bed. It was the source of a few restless evenings and a nightmare or two. Yet, when the sun came up, the light of day quickly vanquished our fears. Our bedrooms were once again a safe, comforting place to sleep and dream. But what if the the real danger wasn’t under your bed? What if your biggest fear was in your bed?

In 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), issued new federal flammability standards. The new guidelines applied to all beds, including crib, youth and futon mattresses. They estimated hundreds of lives a year could be saved with this new standard in place. However, right from the start, the scientific community raised concerns. Toxic flame retardant chemicals were already in use in household products like furniture and paints. Now they are in the beds we sleep in. Even a few mattress manufacturers voiced their apprehension to the new regulations. For the most part though, the bedding industry embraced the idea. By meeting these federally authorized standards, it dramatically reduced the manufacturer's liability.

Big Tobacco Influenced Fire Retardancy Laws

Chemical fire retardants

Another industry stood to gain much by passage of the new regulations. Big tobacco companies played a major role in lobbying for fire retardant standards. Tobacco distributors had come under heavy scrutiny over numerous deaths caused by cigarette ignited fires.

For years, safety advocates had pushed for development of fire safe cigarettes. Basically, one that would put itself out when not being smoked. It was well known companies like RJ Reynolds wanted to shift attention off cigarettes. They prefered to put the onus on furniture and mattress companies. A May, 2012 Chicago Tribune article revealed how big tobacco used their influence. They used questionable methods to leverage support from the National Association of State Fire Marshals. Large donations landed one of tobacco's own, Peter Sparber, within the organization. He then used his influence to convince the marshals that tobacco's arguments were legitimate. He promoted the idea that altering furniture was a more effective way to prevent fires than altering cigarettes. Having a strong, respected ally helped further Tobacco's agenda.

Research shows risk out weighs gains

Prior to its approval, the CPSC's own research determined health risks were insignificant. They believed that fire retardant technologies were far safer than previous years. Growing scientific evidence does not support their claim. Neither government or independent research has proved substantial benefits.

A Duke University study led by Heather Stapleton suggested the opposite. Findings indicated flame retardant chemicals accumulate in your body. These same chemicals interfere with hormones, thyroid and reproductive systems. Stapleton also notes that infants, during the first year of life are exceptionally vulnerable. Chemicals found in fire retardant materials can disrupt brain development. 

Chemical companies make huge profits

Large chemical companies, who profit greatly, continue to fight to maintain status quo. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Stapleton noted that under the EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, “If a flame-retardant manufacturer wants to market a new flame retardant, they can go right ahead and do so without testing it for toxicity beforehand. All they have to do is tell the EPA ‘I’m producing this chemical’ and under what volumes, and how I’m going to use it.” This makes chemical fire retardants extremely difficult to monitor. The federal government has acted to limit the use of some of these chemicals but progress has been slow. “Chemical manufacturers are reluctant to change to more strict regulations,” Stapleton said. “For furniture, the making of these chemicals is a billion-dollar industry. It’s very political.”

Organic materials offer safe alternative 

Chemical fire retardants wool - sheep

No one disputes the importance of fire safety. The 2017 standards were designed to slow down how quickly dangerous fires can spread. The goal was to provide additional time for escape before deadly flames and smoke consume your home. The law makes it mandatory for manufacturers to offer such protection. What the law does not state is what materials must be used to comply with these regulations. Dangerous chemicals are not the only method available.

Natural Wool is just as effective a fire retardant as dangerous chemical options. Wool chars but does not burn. It's a safe, renewable solution already in use. My Green Mattress, Happsy, Avocado, Zenhaven and Spindle Mattress have all adopted this process.

As pressure mounts from a concerned consumer base, more and more manufacturers are looking into this safe, responsible options. In addition, natural materials like Organic Cotton (grown without the use of pesticides) and natural latex are slowly becoming more commonplace. The combination of these materials offer a safe and sustainable solution. We applaud all these companies that have raised the bar and taken a greener healthier initiative. It’s a grassroots movement that we certainly hope continues to grow!