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Avinash Kar’s Blog

"Toxic Hot Seat" Coming to a Television Near You

Avinash Kar

Posted November 19, 2013 in Health and the Environment

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Next week, right around the time you might be sitting down on your couch to start relaxing into your Thanksgiving weekend, HBO will air a new documentary called Toxic Hot Seat. It’s essential viewing. You might never look at your couch the same way again.

Thumbnail image for TB 117 burning label.jpg

Toxic Hot Seat—by filmmakers Kirby Walker, an Honorary NRDC Board Member, and James Redford—tells the story of efforts to change an obscure California regulation that has led to the use of toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals in furniture not just here in California, but around the country, and even the world. Unfortunately, exposure to these dangerous chemicals has come with no real benefit and some very real health risks. For over three decades, these flame retardant chemicals have been exposing us all to risk without providing additional fire safety. Because of the widespread use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture and other products, Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world and California children have some of the highest levels ever measured. During manufacturing, use and disposal, these chemicals are also released into the environment where they can be found in air, water and wildlife.

Today, pounds of flame retardant chemicals are added to the foam inside furniture but fires start on the outer fabric, usually from smoldering cigarettes. Furniture treated with flame retardant chemicals doesn’t burn more slowly and releases more toxic smoke and gases when there is a fire, putting people’s health and firefighters’ health, in particular, at greater risk for cancer. It is really a stupid use of dangerous chemicals.

The film follows the investigations of award-winning journalists from the Chicago Tribune that uncovered the dirty tactics of the flame retardant chemical industry to keep these toxic compounds in your couch, complete with a phony citizen group and misinformation campaign. It’s the stuff of conspiracy and would be hard to believe if it weren’t all laid out before you. The film also documents how a broad and diverse coalition came together to help create the momentum for change to a regulation sorely in need of an overhaul: from firefighters and mothers; to health, consumer and environmental groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility—Los Angeles, Consumer Federation of California, Center for Environmental Health, Green Science Policy Institute and NRDC; to fire scientists like those featured in the movie and furniture manufacturers that have consistently opposed regulations that force them to use the chemicals in their furniture. The great journalism by the Chicago Tribune put a spotlight on the chemical industry dirty tricks while citizens weighed in to support a change to the obscure California policy—more than 80,000 people wrote letters of support for a better approach that does not drive the use of toxic chemicals.   

Thanks to all these efforts, change is on the way. With leadership from Governor Brown and the agency responsible for updating this obsolete regulation, the Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation, California is moving forward with changes to this obsolete regulation. The new regulations, expected soon, would provide better fire safety without the need for toxic chemicals.

Be sure not to miss the premier of Toxic Hot Seat, which airs on HBO on November 25 at 9 p.m. And stay tuned for more!

Image courtesy Toxic Hot Seat

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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