The Scary Truth about Flame Retardants

A new HBO documentary takes an honest look at how toxic flame retardants became a standard component in our furniture.

The film – Toxic Hot Seat – premiered on HBO on Monday, and you can check out the trailer at the top of this page.

Flame retardants are linked to a slough of health problems from birth defects to cancer, and there’s strong evidence that they don’t even prevent fires. So why are they in so many products that we buy? The answer is going to shock you, I’m sure: money.

Back in the 1970s, people’s homes were catching on fire because of people irresponsibly smoking in the house. There are a lot of reasons that smoking in your house is a bad idea, but “it could cause a fire” is a pretty powerful one. People were pushing tobacco companies to come up with a cigarette that goes out on its own, but instead of spend money to develop that product, the tobacco industry pushed back. They said that this uptick in house fires was the furniture’s fault for catching fire.

No, really. You can read more about it in Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent New York Times piece on the topic.

Of course, producing flame retardants is a big money-maker for the chemical industry, and those dollars carry a lot of clout in Washington. That means that reformers who want to change the laws about flame retardants are meeting strong opposition.

When I write these sorts of articles, I really like presenting not just the problem, but a solution. I wish that I could include a section here entitled “Want to avoid flame retardants? Here’s how!” Unfortunately, these toxic chemicals are so prevalent in our furniture, clothing, and accessories that avoiding them seems almost impossible. Kristof does offer some advice in his column on how to minimize your exposure to flame retardants:

Itís often impossible to know whether a particular couch contains retardants. The Center for Environmental Health suggests that parents avoid foam and choose furniture made of wood, or upholstered with cotton, down, wool or polyester fiberfill.

What’s worse? Since flame retardants don’t stop things from catching on fire, when there is a house fire, it’s incredibly toxic. Cancer has become a new on-the-job hazard for firefighters, because they are exposed to concentrated amounts of these chemicals in smoke when they arrive on the scene.

Flame Retardants: What You CAN Do

Remember how I said that these toxins are unavoidable? That is pretty much true. But there are activists out there trying to get flame retardants out of our homes and out of common products. Safer Chemicals is working to make us safe from toxic flame retardants, and you can support them by joining the campaign or hosting a screening of Toxic Hot Seat.

You can also write to your Congressperson and let him or her know that you think the Chemical Safety Improvement Act needs to get tough on flame retardants and that you support the Safer Chemicals proposed changes to the bill. You can find your Senator(s)’s names right here, or sign the Care2 petition below.

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Tanya W.
Tanya W4 years ago


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

isn't this old news?

Sue H.
Sue H4 years ago

We've known about this toxin for long enough that it should have been banned by now. :(

Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago


Kimberly Coryat
Kimberly C4 years ago

Flag as inappropriate: "Leila C." posting that same scam link.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago

And, oh so many don't know....

M. Squire.
Marie Squire4 years ago

thank you for this post

Dmitry Nikiforov
Dmitry Nikiforov4 years ago

thank you

Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago

Living in a chemical soup.