Politics Beats Science On Fire Safety

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, there will be plenty of politics to argue over turkey dinner. But the one place politics should have no place? Science.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is tasked with recalling dangerous products and guiding Americans to make safe purchasing decisions, so you might assume the agency would guide their decisions with science, not politics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The CPSC recently voted along party lines to steer manufacturers and consumers away from a group of fire protection materials called “organohalogen flame retardants” in children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronics.

Astoundingly, the CPSC’s own science staff told the commissioners that banning such a broad group of fire-preventing materials was a bad idea. According to the National Fire Protection Association, Americans fall victim to more than 380 thousand house fires each year. Organohalogen flame retardants are some of the best lines of defense, and prevent fires from spreading long enough for families to escape.

Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., appropriately called the move a “leap of faith,” considering the lack of evidence definitively linking the use of these flame retardants with health impacts in humans. It begs the question: How can the Consumer Product Safety Commission protect us from dangerous products if the danger doesn’t exist?

When flame retardants – and not just the organohalogen kind – are incorporated into mattresses, fabric, electronics and toys, they delay the amount of time it takes for the item to catch on fire.

Unfortunately, the entire group of fire protection tools gets a bad rap since some early flame retardants were tied to environmental problems in the late 1990s. But chemistry and safety both thrive on innovation and every new generation of flame retardant materials are safer than the last. TBBPA, for instance, was approved by both the European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada as safe for human and environmental health. It’s an organohalogen flame retardant often woven into plastics to prevent electronics from going up in flames. But under the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s direction, TBBPA could be on its way out.

That’s the problem with banning entire classes of chemicals – where one might be dangerous at high enough levels, another might be perfectly safe. Such is the case for TBBPA, and the countless other organohalogens that will never be developed in the first place. Innovative science: 0, bureaucracy: 1.

In anticipation of an eventual ban on these important fire-staving materials, here are a few ways to keep your little ones out of harm’s way:

  • For the best protection, make sure your smoke alarms work and are installed in every room.
  • With Halloween coming up, choose fire-resistant costumes, and be extra mindful of open flames.
  • On that note, never leave candles unattended or near flammable materials like curtains, flowers, upholstery, or loose sleeves.
  • Electric fires are the number one cause of house fires in America. Make sure fans and heating units are functioning properly, and aren’t operating with frayed cords. Keep space heaters away from the wall.
  • Teach your children the family fire escape plan, and practice it in every room of your home.