Flame-retarded media continue to fan fears of chemicals

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An article yesterday in USA Today — which has apparently decided to become the bête noir of chemicals — demonstrates that even so-called “science journalists” are ill-informed about the risks (or, rather, lack thereof) associated with flame retardants used in household products. Unfortunately, their misinformation helps the public stay confused and afraid of useful and safe chemicals.

Titled “Chemicals found in flame retardant baby products can have lasting effects,” USA Today’s Liz Szabo uses alarmist headlines (fresh off the Environmental Working Group grill) to instill fear in readers about flame retardants. Despite the scary headline, neither the article nor the body of scientific evidence discusses any health threat to humans — even babies — from flame retardants. The concern always mentioned is that we have these substances in our bodies.

“True enough,” said ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross. “So what? The mere detection of a substance does not mean it’s harmful, as we have often said. Ms. Szabo’s clear intent is to get readers’ attention by mentioning ‘babies’ and ‘effects’ in the same sentence — but there is no substance to her insinuations. She follows the oft-used tactic of front-loading her report with a number of menacing but insubstantial observations from environmental activists, and then giving the appearance of balance by quoting an industry spokesperson — the American Chemistry Council’s Kathryn St. John — who correctly points out the necessity of flame retardants in fighting fires,” reiterating what ACSH’s 2006 report on flame retardants has already explained: flame retardants save lives from fires, as fire departments around the country have attested.

Most of the activists she quotes, like Arlene Blum of the Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences, point to the 1977 Consumer Products Safety Commission ban on a flame retardant called Tris, which was used in children’s sleepwear, noting that it and other such chemicals linger in our homes. However, what these activists neglect to note, is that Bruce Ames, the very scientist who initially found Tris to be problematic, later rescinded his findings in a landmark paper in Science and became a valued ACSH advisor, not to mention the inventor of a revolutionary test for mutagenicity that is used worldwide in determining drug safety.

Finally, to the token worried mother whom USA Today quotes, underlining her difficulties finding “chemical-free products for her 5-month-old daughter,” Dr. Ross remarks, “There’s no such thing as a chemical-free product. We’re made of chemicals, in fact.”