On a crisp autumn night about seven years ago, I cleaned up the kitchen after my wife cooked dinner and then I joined her in our family room to watch television. It was a typical evening for us, except that, because it was Hanukkah, some candles burned in a menorah on the kitchen counter.
The kitchen smoke alarm sounded a short time later. Neither of us jumped up to investigate, because the alarm occasionally sounds around dinnertime, when things can get a little smoky. It just seemed odd that it was sounding after we had finished the meal. For a moment we looked at one another, both of us having completely forgotten about the candles. The alarm kept sounding. Finally I trudged back to the kitchen to shut it off.
When I got there, I found that one of the candles had fallen out of its holder and landed on the counter, missing the strip of aluminum foil that we place beneath the menorah to catch wax drippings. The flame had burned a hole, maybe four inches wide, through the counter’s Formica surface and was cheerily chewing through the wood-based substrate, emitting enough smoke to trigger the alarm. I enjoy the Jewish Festival of Lights as much as the next guy, but this was taking things a little too far, so I quickly extinguished the flame.
Our house was built in the 1990s. The Formica was a modern variety that had been treated with flame retardants - luckily for us. The island countertop was about eight feet long, mounted atop wood cabinets and surrounded by a hardwood floor. Things could have been much, much worse. As it happened, the only consequence of our misadventure was that we accelerated plans to remodel the kitchen. We have granite countertops now. I hear granite doesn’t burn.
I thought about this incident recently when a Facebook friend approvingly posted a New York Times opinion column by Nicholas Kristof that posed the question “Are You Safe On That Sofa?” Kristof, in turn, described the “superb journalism” of a Chicago Tribune “Watchdog” article headlined “Toxic Roulette,” which described the approval process for a modern fire retardant, Firemaster 550. The article’s online subhead captures the theme of the story: “Firemaster 550, touted as safe, is the latest in a long line of flame retardants allowed onto the market without thorough study of health risks.”
In the more relaxed atmosphere of the Sunday op-ed page, Kristof went further. The approval process, he claimed, is “a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics.” The money in question, according to Kristof, was that of the big tobacco companies. (If you called Central Casting and asked them to send over someone to play corporate villain, a tobacco company employee would knock on your door five minutes later.) Kristof claimed the tobacco companies wanted to defuse criticism that people who fall asleep while smoking in bed or on sofas would often set fire to the furniture.
Critics of the flame retardants assert that the compounds are “endocrine disruptors” that have been shown to create a wide variety of ill effects in animals. Impacts on humans are unclear, as even Kristof conceded. But he advised his readers that “the problem with flame retardants is that they migrate into dust that is ingested, particularly by children playing on the floor.” Okay, now we have both the villainous tobacco companies and the innocent babies playing beneath the couch. Whatever Kristof’s writing may lack, it offers melodrama in abundance.
I am no expert on the biological safety of flame retardants and other chemical compounds. I can’t tell you whether the little balls of dust beneath the couch pose a clear and present danger to infants and toddlers. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that being incinerated is bad for people of all ages, babies included.
You would think that somewhere in their exposés of the evildoers who put flame retardants in our homes, the Tribune reporters and Kristof might at least acknowledge this fact, which has been well documented since roughly the Paleolithic era. Nope. The closest either article gets is Kristof’s bald assertion that the flame retardants in your sofa “will probably do no good if your house catches fire - although [the sofa] may release toxic smoke.”
The point of flame retardants is to prevent a house from catching fire in the first place. That’s what happened on my kitchen counter, and it has surely happened innumerable times in the years since household furniture began to be treated. If the truth is that flame retardants are a fraud - that they actually don’t retard flames - then Kristof and the Tribune missed a much bigger story.
But that’s not likely. Though neither Kristof nor the Tribune bothered to include any statistics on fire deaths, I was so startled by my Facebook friend’s casual approval of Kristof’s claptrap that I spent a little time on a weekend morning digging up statistics of my own. In 1979, there were 5,998 fire deaths in the United States. That figure dropped to 3,354 in 1999 and to 2,640 in 2010. The drop is even sharper when you consider that there were about 225 million people in America in 1979, while the 2010 census counted 308 million.
Flame retardants don’t deserve all the credit, of course. There are many factors at play, from smoke detectors to lower smoking rates. Sometimes, as my own experience demonstrated, these factors work together. My smoke alarm alerted me to the danger, and the fire retardant in my kitchen counter kept the fire to a size that I could readily extinguish without needing to call the fire department.
Today’s fire safety measures, including flame retardants, save thousands of lives each and every year. Over the course of a decade, that may be 20,000 or 30,000 lives saved. How many lives are cut short - and by how much - due to the use of flame retardants? Scandal-mongers like Kristof and the Tribune reporting team have nothing to say on this point. The only way to know whether we want to ban flame retardants from our homes is to know how many lives they might cost in comparison to the lives they might save.
Science that points to alleged health risks without being able to quantify those risks is junk science. It gives us something to chew on, but nothing of decision-making value. News reporting that parrots junk science, without either providing context or pointing out the lack of context in the underlying subject matter, is junk news. We swallow it at our own risk.