As I sat down to watch a documentary called Toxic Hot Seat (2013), directed by James Redford and Kirby Walker, I was anticipating an hour and a half of boring film assigned as homework in my AP Environmental Class. As the movie ended I was left with a new, frightening understanding of “ignorance is bliss” and a whole new inventory of knowledge.
The movie began with an introduction of a retired San Diego fire chief named Tony Stefani.
He introduced himself as a infallible firefighter who enjoyed the thrill of running into a fire and had little fear. Until he was diagnosed transitional cell carcinoma in his right kidney, a rare form of cancer normally found in individuals who work in the chemical industry. Firefighting? A chemical industry? It may not seem so but as the movie introduced numerous cases of fire fighters, men and women, diagnosed with cancers. These men and women were victims of a common household toxin known as flame retardants. And beyond that “of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the united states (flame retardants to household cleaners) a majority are exempt from regulation and most have never been tested of safety”(ToxicHotSeat). The victims of these toxins are far from limited to fire fighters. Studies fueled by these cases revealed the bioaccumulation of various toxins that people come in contact with in their homes daily.
This film focuses mainly on TB117, a fire retardant instituted in California as “Technical Bulletin 117” in 1970. TB 117 was a result of a unsettlingly high amount of fire related deaths; In a time period where about 40% of americans were smoking cigarettes and it was normal to smoke indoors discarded or dropped cigarettes were causing an uprise in fire related deaths. This fueled an argument between Tobacco Industries and Individuals fighting for fire safety between self extinguishing cigarettes or flame retardant furniture. Tobacco industries claimed that they couldn’t sell a self extinguishing cigarette and that the best solution was to make flame retardant furniture, TB117 was California’s solution which flew under the radar until it was in furniture in homes throughout the United States and Canada. The immense reach and effects of untested, harmful toxins prompted in depth research into what families were unknowingly being exposed to.
Arlene Blum, Ph.D, executive director of Green Science Policy Institute and a chemist at UC Berkeley, was one of the researchers. In a lecture style classroom Arlene explains, “when foam burns in the presence of organal halogens (like TB117) it gives off way more carbon monoxide soot and smoke, and what kills people in fires?”, Arlene asks, “Toxic Gasses”(Blum). Studies by Vytenis Babrauskas, a civil engineer, fire modeler, and the founder of Fire Sciences and Technology Inc., have been incorrectly referenced by chemical companies claiming that fire retardants cause a fifteen times slower burning rate in furniture with these toxins. However, it was revealed that that is only the case in NASA grade flame retardants that Babrauskas was testing, and instead the diluted flame retardants used in furniture only slowed fire by 12 seconds. This being said, these chemicals were revealed as somewhat ineffective flame retardants that release the carbon monoxide soot and smoke that Blum confirmed as a significant cause of fire related deaths. So, it seems like the consumer is getting the worst of both sides when they buy a new couch filled with somewhat ineffective flame retardant that is proven as a harmful toxin.
Arlene then introduced Tris Phosphate, a flame retardant used in children’s pajamas. Blum explains, “we found a little girl who had never worn tris treated pajamas, so we put her in the pajamas and we collected her urine, and the next day there were true breakdown products in her urine… and they were cancer causing chemicals that we were finding” (Blum). This study resulted in a ban of tris treated pajama sales put in place in 1977. However, “coronated tris is the most commonly used flame retardant in furniture and baby products”(Blum). The biggest fear when coming in constant contact with these toxins is the bioaccumulation of these chemicals in the body, “they go into your body and they stay, and over the course of your life they can cause serious health problems”(Blum). PBDE’s, organohalogens like flame retardants, are found in over 90% of americans bodies (breastmilk, blood, urine, and amniotic fluid). They have been found to cause birth defects, adulthood cancer, and lower IQs.
The most disturbing aspect of these studies is when scientists, safety officials, and government advocates stand up to try and change usage and exposure of these chemicals only to be quickly shut down. Many attempts were made, 2008 AB 706 was proposed to ban brominated and chlorinated flame retardant, it failed. In 2010 SB 772 was proposed to
exempt some children’s products from TB117 and SB 1291 was proposed to re evaluate flammability standard, both failed. These attempts were being easily shut down by chemical companies with billions of dollars at their disposal. This is the aspect of the movie that made me concerned for today’s society. These companies were falsely persuading citizens to stand with them to enforce fire safety while lying about the effects these toxins could have. This movie has cemented the validity of “ignorance is bliss” to the point of concern. Though it maybe easier to live a life unaware of these threats I am glad I am informed and though there isn’t much I can do individually knowing that these issues are out there has given me the ability and choice of avoiding these toxins to the best of my ability.