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.
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.
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).
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).
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.)
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.
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.