California recently overturned a 38-year-old rule that approved the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture containing foam. The rule has set the standard for furniture manufacturers nationwide.
These chemicals have been linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility. The new rule does not ban the use of such chemicals, but gives manufacturers the choice to omit them.
When it burns, you get more toxic smoke, and more people die in fires from the smoke than getting burned.Kirby Walker
In the HBO documentary “Toxic Hot Seat,” which premieres tonight, directors James Redford and Kirby Walker look at the role of flame retardants in the U.S.
Walker tells Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti that the California law, known as TB 117, was passed in the 1970s after a number of deadly house fires caused by cigarettes setting furniture on fire. Fire safety, like smoke detectors and fire alarms, was less prevalent at the time.
The tobacco industry was reluctant to introduce self-extinguishing cigarettes, so lawmakers decided to make furniture safer by requiring flame retardant chemicals.
"I think this is a case of unintended consequences — I don't think anybody in this story meant to do harm," Walker says. "When it burns, you get more toxic smoke, and more people die in fires from the smoke than getting burned."
Walker says young children are most susceptible to ingesting flame retardant chemicals because they are found in products for children that contain polyurethane foam, and because kids spend most of their time close to the floor, where chemical residue from furniture ends up.
"I'm not paranoid, I don't think my couch was killing me," Walker said. "I still have that furniture, I just wish these chemicals weren't in it."
- Kirby Walker, co-director of “Toxic Hot Seat.”
This segment aired on November 25, 2013.