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Another top-level comment wrote:

between this and the article about brain parasites in california, HN is scaring the crap out of me

And I guess that's why my all-time favorite external link to share here on Hacker News is "Warning Signs in Experimental Design and Interpretation"


by Peter Norvig, Google's director of research. To resolve the issue of the safety trade-offs of not treating furniture with flame-retardant chemicals (the status quo when I was a child) and treating it (the status quo for quite a while now in the United States) will take careful examination of the actual risk ratios of any disease said to be correlated with the chemicals, the risk ratios of injuries and deaths from fires, the cost of other preventive measures for each kind of harm, and so on. Public policy is not easy. The best public policies have to be carefully examined in light of verifiable facts.

I see from user danso's profile


that he has a professional role in investigative journalism, and indeed I have enjoyed reading (and of course have upvoted) many of his comments here on HN over the past year. The piece submitted here mentions about its author that "Dashka Slater is the author of six books for children and adults. Her latest children’s book, 'Dangerously Ever After,' is out this month," which prompted me to look up other information about the author. Her personal website


declares that she has written pieces for a variety of publications, many in the "alternative" market for periodical articles, and her LinkedIn profile


declares her educational background. There is some interesting reporting here, but as a regular reader of Mother Jones (one of the publications that most often publishes her work) and of other "alternative" publications, I would like to see more follow-up on this issue before writing to my elected representatives, as I sometimes do, asking for a change in current law. I do remember when newspaper and magazine articles in my childhood were all about the fearsome dangers of fires killing little children.

A recent submission to HN based on very reliable statistics pointed out that life expectancy in the United States at birth, at age 40, at age 60, at age 65, and even at age 80 has been steadily RISING


since 1960, so new regulations introduced since then so far don't seem to have net harm for the population in balance with all other social and environmental changes since then. Perhaps the purported flame-retardant chemicals don't prevent as many fires as people suppose. But perhaps they also don't cause any serious human illness in actual use. Let's not rush to judgment on this issue, but let's do actual, verifiable science that with sound economic and policy analysis can help guide lawmakers to the best currently available trade-off in regulation.

I think the thing that is reflexively offensive about this whole thing is that the government has taken a risk that is reasonably easy for a responsible adult to avoid (setting their couch on fire) and implemented a measure that is harmful and difficult or almost impossible to avoid. It's as if we are all made to pay for the morons who can't resist playing with matches in their couch.

It is not particularly easy to avoid setting your couch on fire. The problem with flaming couches is not just those cases where the couch is the primary contributor to the fire; it's also the cases where couches rapidly accelerate the intensity of a smaller fire, like from an electrical malfunction.

The regulation says, "the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting." so if a fire has already started and it is bigger than a small flame then this regulation isn't meant to help with that. In fact if you look around you can find http://laurasrules.org/2012/04/15/sofa-saga-part-3-interview... people talking about studies that show that in a actual fire these chemicals only slow down the burn rate by a couple seconds.

I wonder what percentage are caused by cigarettes. Especially combined with alcohol.

I'm inclined to agree, but see this comment upthread about smokers: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4494407

I'm hard put to believe I could be that careless even if I were a smoker, but apparently some people are.

Anyway, as a matter of policy, maybe as smoking continues to become less popular (here's hoping) it will seem less like a good trade to provide some very slight protection against smokers setting their furniture on fire at the cost of exposing all of us to carcinogens.

One of my coworkers had his 4 year old child set fire to his couch (he pushed and pushed until it was next to the gas stove - it's easier here in Uruguay due to smaller houses and different gas stoves).

Irresponsible, absolutely, for not supervising the kid, but it is possible.

I assume flame retardants are mainly only needed for couches of smokers (I've never randomly put a flame onto my couch for fun to see if it would burn), so even if fire retardants save 100 people from fires they caused through voluntary negligence while subjecting 1 additional person to cancer or other illness due to chemicals, I'm not sure if it's a fair trade. Saving firefighters might be a reasonable argument, though.

Do we know that anyone has contracted cancer as a result of flame retardants used in furniture? I re-read the article looking for clear evidence, and what I saw on close read was weasel-wording: when direct health effects are being talked about, the subject of the sentence becomes "flame retardants" rather than a specific chemical; when lax investigations become a topic, it's the EPA's laxity (the EPA isn't solely responsible for evaluating chemicals).

The closest the author comes to accusing a specific flame retarded is chlorinated trisphosphates. You can go to the EPA and look up the safety record of these chemicals; long story short, you can give rats reproductive and kidney cancer if you feed them chlorinated tris every day for 2 years.

Do we know that any lives have been saved as a result of flame retardants being used in furniture?

The article suggests that flame retardants do not slow down furniture fires in real world scenarios. The problem is that they are used in only the foam padding. The couch fabric is not treated. The foam itself appears to offer little resistance to fire if it is already covered in flames (like if fabric is on fire). This is where more research is needed.

If the chemicals don't slow down furniture fires and save lives, then there is no value to having them inside foam.

something has been very effective at reducing deaths by fire: http://www.chicagonewscoop.org/chicago/wp-content/uploads/20...

Decrease in cigarette smoking over time?

The old stuff (PCBs and PBBs) definitely had health (and environmental) risks. PCBs are famous, and PBBs are in the EU RoHS, so I'd consider them comparable to lead solder in badness at a first glance (not horrible, but not great). Cancer is pretty hard to prove, but other health effects have had studies (at least for PentaPBDE, nothing for TDCPP (Chlorinated Tris)).

TDCPP might actually be on balance worth using; similarly, I think DDT probably is on balance worthwhile for some applications, and asbestos is still used for some purposes. It's all about tradeoffs, but it is easier to justify a tradeoff when the people paying the costs and receiving the benefits are the same. I get close to zero benefit from fire retardant foam in my couch, probably less than the financial cost of the chemicals.

(I am generally anti whacko unsubstantiated environmentalist/save-the-children activists, but I have some personal experience with PCB contaminated transformers; bleh.)

1. Cancer: does it matter whether it's cancer or something else? Surely the criteria here is "harm" not "cancer".

2. "Flame retardant" vs. "specific chemical": the article specifically cited recent research regarding PBDEs, why did you not consider this valid evidence?

"Researchers from the Center for Children’s Environmental Health, at Columbia University, measured a class of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in the umbilical-cord blood of 210 New York women and then followed their children’s neurological development over time. They found that those with the highest levels of prenatal exposure to flame retardants scored an average of five points lower on I.Q. tests than the children with lower exposures, an impact similar to the effect of lead exposure in early life."

Furthermore, the article made it clear that the ingredients of some flame retardants, such as Chemtura’s Firemaster 550 (apparently one of the most common flame retardants), are trade secrets. The study in (2) makes it clear it can take years to demonstrate an effect. So Chemtura can't even know if their product is safe but they're quite happy to sell it to you! Surely the logical conclusion is: beware.

3. Risk vs. Benefit.

Unfortunately, and this is the crux of the problem, it seems that unless one can afford to commission a couch and pay for laboratory analysis of the foam supplier's product, avoiding these substances is very difficult given the present legal situation. And that definitely seems a point worth fighting given the potential harm identified. If you want to risk poisoning your children for little apparent benefit, that's your choice, but it's unethical to make that choice for me.

Re point 3.

The article mentions a letter from Chemtura saying that there were 1400 deaths from furniture fires in 1980 and only 600 in 2004.

So what that actually means is we've saved 800 or less lives a year for the past 3 decades while exposing basically the entire nation (and presumably a lot of non-nationals with exports) to a whole host of chemicals that we don't know the effect of because the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act declares that all substances are to be presumed safe.

I can't begin to understand how in the universe it is acceptable to subject everyone to "shit thrown together in a lab" and just assuming it's safe. It's unbelievable how often the USA makes laws like that. I presume because "regulation" is "bad for business"...regardless whether the products of business are killing people (albeit somewhat slowly in this case).

It just doesn't make sense.

The specific mix of chemicals in F550 is a trade secret. The constituent chemicals themselves appear on F550's MSDS. I think the article is misleading on this point, saying that research is just starting on F550 (yes, academic research, at a program just started to evaluate all flame retardants) and that the EPA hasn't studied it (because the EPA isn't the agency most responsible for doing that).

PBDE's haven't been used for years.

You can't backtrack a specific cancer to a specific source. Skin cancer and lung cancer have famous "causes" but there statistical in nature with some people getting skin cancer despite minimal exposure to sunlight. Expose a billion people to low doses of a well known carcinogen and you expect a statistical increase in cancers, but there only estimates and it's impossible to track down specific people affected.

Is there statistical evidence of any sort correlating an increase in the specific kinds of cancer attributed to chlorinated tris to the phase-in of flameproofing in upholstered furniture?

The chronic carcinogenicity data for chlorinated tris is specific.

The question at the end of the day though is when we are going to pass regulation that a set of chemicals must be used who has the burden of proof to show that this is a safety gain? I think that the regulator has that burden, and if you have a sort of revolving door of chemicals used there (use it for a time throw it out because of health problems, move on to the next without testing) then you know you have a problem.

I know that this is hard, and it means effectively if there is such a burden of proof patents will expire long before it is met, but it's time to stop that cycle.

Its not just firefighters, but people who live in shared buildings -- apartment, condominium, co-op, etc. In which case, it would appear evident to me that the real policy issue is one of allowing smoking indoors.

Unfortunately the bureaucratic process tends to lean towards spending enormous amounts of time and resources on issues that could be "hacked" fairly easily.

When we add a lot of variables to a problem we end up with solutions that not only are challenging to rationalize, but also tend to have ugly side effects. This is something I've learned from running my own business, and it seems to be reflected on a government level as well.

Hack: use horse hair, down, and feathers for furniture stuffing.

More comfy. Longer lasting.

Won't spontaneously cumbust! =D

Environmentally friendly, too

That's so 1930's.


[Used today for this very reason!]

Kind of tangentially, down is one of the few products where the "humane" way to harvest involves killing the animal; the "pluck living geese over and over again" method is apparently quite painful for them.

Yes, it is a by-product of food consumption. So there is no waste.

Its very sustainable, in that regards. [1]

Edit: citation added.


[1] "Some 70 percent of the world's supply comes from China, typically from birds killed for their meat. Most of the rest comes from Europe and Canada, from birds harvested for meat or pâté.", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_feather#cite_note-24

Wool is also hard to burn (apparently) and sheep don't need to be killed to shear them. Not sure how humane it is. (Better than milk, eggs, leather, etc.)

I've been to sheep-shearings - as long as the sheep is regularly sheared, it'll know what's going on and won't be upset; it's not painful (as long as the person with the trimmer is expert enough not to nick the skin), and the wool starts peeling off in chunks anyway if you don't shear it during the summer.

Caveat: I have no idea if there's some horrible mechanized way to shear sheep at greater scale. But on the smaller scale the most efficient way is to keep the sheep calm and cooperative. The cheapest way to keep large numbers of sheep also seems to be to let them wander over a large area of cheap land (rocky, steep, uneven, etc. -- unusable for cow grazing or farming is just fine). On the Isle of Skye in Scotland there are simply sheep wandering everywhere, often in the roads, as the sheep farmers don't always bother with much fencing.

This last winter, we had a nasty ice-storm that coated everything in about a 1/8 to 1/4 coat of ice. I was working in a nearby city, so going home was nigh impossible.

I ended up staying with a friend. She has a roommate, and they both smoke. I ended up sleeping on a bed there. What I saw disturbed me greatly:

The pillow, sheet, and 2 blankets all had various amounts of burns from ashes and cigarettes. The sizes on some of the burns were so big I could fit my index finger through.

I have to wonder: how do they keep from catching their surroundings on fire?

Could you provide a TL;DR of your expose? Thanks!


Fire is dangerous, and we know it kills a bunch of people.

Fire retardants may be dangerous, they may harm a bunch of people, but we're not sure how many, nor how they are harmed. Research is sometimes conducted poorly, or good research is interpreted poorly by reporters.

We need to balance risk and cost. People dying in fires is bad. People getting a bunch of diseases is also bad. We need to find out which is more likely.

Having worked in the insurance industry, I can tell you there are less and less fires. The main cause are that there are less people who smoke and that old electrical wiring are replaced by the newer standards.

In urban areas, at the level of units or buildings, aren't improved regulations leading to better fire containment, and/or improved firefighting response and techniques, likely to be contributors as well? There are still apartment fires in Manhattan and Chicago, but they seem much more contained than in the past, with whole-building and especially multi-block conflagrations now quite rare.

I am not sure on that point this reality didn't affect the area I was working on. What I do know is that the number of fires has severely decreased (nearly halved just in the last 5 years). If the number of fires, the ammount claimed per fire has increased dramatically, part of that is the price of building material, work hours and just the value of the insured assets. But it doesn't seem that having fire retardant makes fires any smaller.

So in summary, no content? See, that was easier to see from your TL;DR than from the long comment.

To ask for a "tl;dr", receive it, and then assail the author of the condensed summary for lacking details is an especially clever kind of troll.

I did not mean to assail? The original comment was lengthy and I did not understand what the overall message was (is the author of the article a fraud? Or not?). So I asked for a TL;DR which seems to be "maybe there is a problem or maybe there isn't", which for me condenses to zero content. How is that assailing?

Perhaps my tone came across as snarky because the person providing the TL;DR actually "assailed" me for asking for a TL;DR. Sorry about that.

Statistics don't count in medicine if you are the one who gets the disease.

They don't count if you die in a fire, either.

The reality is with this kind of thing we're really off into rounding errors. To the extent you can affect your odds of getting cancer, the extent to which you do the things your mother told you to do (don't smoke, don't drink, eat your vegetables, and don't get too fat) swamps your cancer risk from environmental sources.

Your environmental risk of cancer is probably not dominated by scary industrial chemicals, either; aflatoxins are probably much more carcinogenic than chlorinated trisphosphates used in flame retardants, and mother nature does just fine producing those on her own, often in our houses, and often in our pantries.

Just don't eat broccoli. Broccoli contains mutagens. http://www.biomedsearch.com/nih/Genotoxicity-studies-organic...

Well, you can't compare broccoli to nothing. Broccoli is probably a big improvement over the food most people eat, mutagenic properties notwithstanding.

That's not what I got from that abstract. Rather, broccoli has little cancer-preventative effect on fruit flies.

Broccoli has some mutagenic properties, and some anti-mutagenic properties. This study was to see whether the overall effect was more damage or more protection, and the damage won.

I thought the connection to Bruce Ames was interesting. I remember reading Ames' discussion of carcinogens in foods and realizing that by the standards he was measuring, everything would give us cancer and the only thing we could do was ignore all that.

I do think that regulations mandating the use of new chemicals without decades of health testing is pretty irresponsible though.

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