Obese, Poor, Smokers Care More About Fire Safety?

By Hank Campbell — Dec 21, 2016
Who has the safest furniture in America? Apparently poor people.

A new report dredges up some environmental myths about flame retardants and then says poor people are most at risk - but it could really mean poor people aren't scaremongered by epidemiologists in academia as easily as everyone else, even if it's due to economic necessity that government-funded university employees only witness in the abstract.

In 2016, there is no reason to defend the brominated flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) - they are already banned in various states, like California. Which makes it even stranger that a paper in Environmental Science & Technology invokes them as a possible...well, no one knows if they are a possible anything, the authors just offhandedly mention old claims from animal models promoted by groups like Environmental Working Group.(1) It's almost like the authors had a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and had to put out a paper (2) so they phoned this one in. 

Since PBDEs are tightly regulated or banned, there is no reason to discuss them other than respect for science and evidence-based decision-making, both of which are lacking in what is essentially an epidemiology op-ed. PBDEs were introduced thanks to activists like California Governor Jerry Brown in 1975 - to save children - and then banned thanks to activists like California Governor Jerry Brown 40 years later, again to save children. (3) In 1975, the reason to integrate these was to prevent "flashover" in furniture during a fire. Flashover is an explosive eruption of flames once things like mattresses came into contact. Flames spread to all surfaces.

Flame retardation was not a new concept in 1975. It was not even a new concept in 1775. The first flame-retardant patent was issued in England in 1735 and thousands of years ago the Romans had used chemicals to protect their wooden siege towers from flaming arrows.

The legitimate idea in the 1970s was that science, in this case chemistry, could give people more time to escape from a home fire before a potential explosive burst. Solid things don't burn directly, heat instead breaks down molecules which release carbon that reacts with oxygen (oxidizes) and burns. Yes, your furniture has free radicals. Flame retardants essentially act like supplements - except these are supplements that actually do something - and suppress the free radicals, preventing a fire or slowing the combustion process.

As Dr. Josh Bloom, American Council on Science and Health Senior Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, explains, organic chemicals that contain multiple atoms of bromine and chlorine usually don t burn, which is why they are used as fire retardants. But he also notes what got environmentalists excited about the fundraising opportunities; they are highly stable within the body so they are metabolized and excreted much slower than most chemicals, and can be stored in fat.

Such "bioaccumulation" always brings an early Christmas if you make money terrifying parents, which is why so many measurements of PBDEs focused on levels in women and children. It didn't matter if they were harmful, they just had to be detectable. (4) 

Fat storage is important in framing the latest speculation about PBDEs. The authors are sure to note that people with high BMI have greater levels. The reason for that is obvious, as just explained, so either they don't know any biochemistry or they have chosen to ignore it in order to get some cultural buzz. And while animals are not little people - the big flaw in claims that chemicals causing hazards in rats must also be risky for people - kids are actually little people, which is why bioaccumulation of something harmless is still harmless. If you can detect five or 10X the level of something that can't be harmful, it doesn't much matter how tall the person is, 10 times zero is still zero.

The authors make sure to show a smiling baby in their paper about how they can detect PBDEs - you care about kids, right? - though they then present nothing at all to show why any of it matters.

There is a chemical near this child! I am writing me a letter to Congress! Or Obama, so he can executive order that all chemicals be banned from contact with children before Trump takes over. 

There are multiple issues in the paper. We are really talking about 17 kids here, with statistical manipulation ("linear and Tobit regression, log-transformed PBDE congeners were modeled as a function of child characteristics") to create an unobservable variable in order to correlate the presence of PBDEs with socioeconomic factors, like being poor.

Given that, who looks more pro-science than epidemiologists in this case? Smokers, fat people and the poor - though, really, those folks are all the same in these simplistic data-dredging papers. Smokers are obviously not more pro-science than anyone, the weight of evidence showing the perils of smoking has been available for generations, and poor people are not necessarily more pro-science than the data dredgers writing the paper.

Wait, why would smokers have more PBDEs? There is no reason, and unlike with BMI the authors won't even lob out speculation about a link, it is just more evidence this paper is fishin' in the dark. For that matter, why do Californians have more PBDEs than people in Kansas?

It doesn't matter. The reality is poor people simply keep their furniture longer. And since there is a fire every two hours in the U.S., it may be good that they're keeping furniture that is scientifically safer.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist but it's not wrong to suggest that this paper was written to be lawsuit bait: One of the co-authors worked for the sue-and-settle environmental law firm Weitz & Luxenberg. Poor people make great plaintiffs because all money is good money when you have little of it, which is ironically why they still have that old, safe furniture. 


(1) A non-peer-reviewed analysis of 20 mother-child pairs in the United States by EWG is what set off this whole chain of events. Weirdly, there is even less science-based policy-making in Europe.

(2) They did. 

(3) If that sounds like Center for Science in the Public Interest's Michael Jacobson ranting about saturated fats and insisting they needed to be replaced with trans fats, only to then rant about the replacement to pretend it's about public health, well, there is a reason they are both called Moonbeam. Fortunately, both will also be retired in 2017.

(4) And being detectable in men wouldn't get media attention.