Arlene Blum, who is featured in the movie Toxic Hot Seat, will be on campus the week of February 17 to discuss her decades-long work to eliminate toxic chemicals from flame retardants with members of the Harvard community. In advance of her visit, we asked student Hanna Evensen, Harvard College 2016) to watch the movie and provide us with this review.

Today some of the greatest threats to our health are often undetectable to our senses. We are at risk for exposure to silent killers: chemicals in our workplaces or homes. As we lay our heads down onto our mattresses or sofas, we can’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but toxins may be entering our bodies with each breath. These chemicals come in the form of flame retardants. The story of flame retardants in furniture and household products is one of manipulation and deceit by big industry with tragic consequences. 

The public uproar generated by flame retardants made its way to Harvard last spring when students mobilized against their use in dorm furniture. A Harvard college spokesperson responded, “Harvard is actively seeking to purchase furniture to help meet that goal, while continuing to meet safety requirements included in state law.” The efforts at Harvard are now featured on the website of Toxic Hot Seat, a documentary released last year uncovering the flame retardant scandal.  

It’s impossible to watch Toxic Hot Seat without feeling anger and indignation. As the story unfolds, it first seems to be an unfortunate case of inadequate science or a shortage of tests and research. But the filmmakers skillfully follow the threads through the heartbreaking stories of sickness and death to the unquestionable incrimination of big industry.

It all began with the cigarette, the leading cause of fires in the United States. Against pressure to create cigarettes that safely extinguish on upholstery, the tobacco industry redirected the blame onto furniture manufacturers, claiming that they have a responsibility to make furniture less susceptible to fire. The door was opened for the chemical industry, which lobbied heavily for the use of flame-retardants in furniture. The very law supposed to protect our rights now required the use of toxic chemicals in household products. Investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune first published this alarming series of events.

Research strongly connects the chemicals in flame retardants to cancer. Firefighters are disproportionately affected because of their consistent exposure to the chemical fumes released from furniture in fires. The toxins are found in human bodies and in breast milk; children are among the most susceptible. Toxic Hot Seat followed the stories of firefighters who battled cancer and watched their colleagues die from the same illness.

Despite clear evidence about the harmful effects of flame retardants, they continued to be required until very recently with the amendment of TB 117. This is where the story takes a sickening turn. In order to keep their chemicals in furniture, the three big chemical companies distorted studies on the effectiveness of flame retardants to the point where the study authors felt compelled to speak out against the deceit. In actuality, flame retardants in furniture appear to have no effect on fire safety. We suffer from the effects without any of the purported benefit.

The documentary revealed the tactics chemical companies used to scare the public into believing that the chemicals were crucial for their safetyincluding the creation of a coalition they called “Citizens for Fire Safety.” The Chicago Tribune had to request the missing documents of the organization’s registration to uncover the coalition’s list of members. There were only three members: Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicalsthe three major chemical manufacturers.

In actuality, flame-retardants in furniture appear to have no effect on fire safety. We suffer from the effects without any of the purported benefit.

Since the film’s release, TB 117 (the law requiring flame-retardants) has been amended to make using the chemicals optional. Some states have banned them. But the chemicals could still be present in existing furniture. It’s important to check the labels when buying new furniture.

The disheartening truth is that this is not the first time we have heard this story in the United States. This is not the first time big industry has used lobbying and other shady tactics to sell their products, more concerned with their bottom line than with the wellbeing of the public. Until we have better means of regulating big business and requiring scientific testing and standards, the responsibility falls on consumers to demand that their products are safe. But there is no way to be angry about what you don’t know.

There are many people to thank for our awareness of the danger of flame retardants: Arlene Blum, the chemist fighting against flame-retardants since the 1970’s, the victims and advocates of the issue, the investigate journalists at the Chicago Tribune and filmmakers like Kirby Walker and James Redford. But it’s our responsibility to demand change with our votes, our consumer power, and our voices. 

Additional reading: Harvard study links toxic chemicals to brain disorders in children