TEXT ON SCREEN: July 18, 1971
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 7-18-71):NEWS REPORT: This test shows what can happen to almost every piece of childrens clothing sold in America.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-24-72):MOTHER: At least one child dies every day of fabric related burns.
NARRATION: In 1973, the federal government began requiring childrens pajamas to be fire safe.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-7-77):NEWS REPORT: And the most widely used flame retardant was Tris. Millions of mothers have put their babies to bed in Tris treated nightclothes.
NARRATION: But this was the 1970s, a period of growing concern about the environment. Focus shifted from fireto Tris itself.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS 4-7-77):REPORTER: Scientists fear Tris may cause cancerthousands of cases among children.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-16-77):HENRY WAXMAN: I dont want my children sleeping in it and I dont want other peoples children sleeping in it, bathed in a chemical thats gonna cause cancer.
NARRATION: What does the Tris story reveal about how chemicals are regulated?And nearly 40 years later, what do we really know about the flame retardants in our everyday products?
MARK LENO (CALIFORNIA STATE SENATOR): Your average citizen probably does believe that the federal government is testing chemicals before they come into the marketplace. But, nobody is really looking after us.
SAFETY ON FIRE
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-18-71):CHARLES VIRGIN: I woke up that morning to the sight of our son burning like a Christmas tree on fire.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-18-71):NEWS REPORT: His son Jimmy may never lead a normal life because his pajamas did burn.
ARCHIVAL (NBC 7-18-71):NEWS REPORT: Doctors and safety experts say the best answer to cases like Jimmys is to make clothing that wont burn.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-24-72):ROGER MUDD: Makers of sleepwear for children up to the age of 6 were given until the end of July 1973 to make their product flameproof.
NARRATION:To comply with the new rule, pajama makers turned to a flame retardant brominated Tris.
FRANK DANIHER (FORMER EXECUTIVE, VELSICOL CORPORATION): It was a very, very useful product that allowed the manufacturers to meet this flammability standard.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-24-72):NEWS REPORT: A fabric treated with a flame resistant process did not burn, even with a torch.
NARRATION: But public attitudes about chemicals werechanging.New agencies like the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission were created to protect the public from harm.
FRANK DANIHER: There was a chemo-phobia, there was a lot of concern about what are we being exposed to?
NARRATION: One scientist asking those questions was Arlene Blum. She worked with Bruce Ames, developer of a revolutionary test that used bacteria to screen chemicals.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-18-88):NEWS REPORT: Its called the Ames test.
ARLENE BLUM (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GREEN SCIENCE POLICY INSTITUTE): You could take a chemical and if it changed the DNA of bacteria, it was likely to cause cancer.
NARRATION: They tested Tris and in January 1977 published the results.
ARLENE BLUM: We recommended that the main flame retardant in childrens pajamas was a mutagen, changed DNA, might be cancer causing and should not be used.
FRANK DANIHER: The Ames Article came out of nowhere. I mean how could you develop this test using bacteria thats going to predict causing cancer in humans?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-13-77):AL GORE: Did it trouble you that the children of this country might have tumors, carcinogenic or otherwise, produced by the chemical that was being used in all of their sleepwear?FRANK DANIHER: We questioned the test result that TRIS could possibly cause tumors.
FRANK DANIHER: We commissioned a series of tests to be run. Some of the additional testing indicated that it was a mutagen but it wasnt across the board. So we recognized we had a problem.
NARRATION: They tried to find out, was the benefit from Tris worth the risk?
FRANK DANIHER: If it had saved thousands of lives that would perhaps have been more of a mitigating factor. Youd get anecdotal data, but nothing that you could really rely on. And that was, that was very, very disappointing.
NARRATION: A mutagen doesnt always cause cancer. But within months, a study from the National Cancer Institute found Tris did cause cancer in laboratory animals.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-7-77):ANCHOR: The government ruled today that no more childrens sleepwear containing a chemical called Tris may be made or sold.
NARRATION: Pajama makers, left with millions of dollars of useless garments, sued the government.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-24-77):WALTER CRONKITE: The governments attempt to ban Tris, the fabric flame retardant suspected of causing cancer has been overturned.
NARRATION: Even though the ban was overturned, brominated Tris was never used in pajamas again. It was replaced with a similar chemical chlorinated Tris.
ARLENE BLUM: And we ran more mutagenicity tests and chlorinated Tris also was a mutagen, it also changed DNA.
NARRATION: This time, the government did not try for a ban. Instead, chlorinated Tris was voluntarily removed from childrens pajamas.
Arlene Blum didnt think about cholorinated Tris again for more than two decades, until, in 2006, a furniture maker asked her advice about flame retardants.
ARLENE BLUM: And he said, We have this flame retardant Tris and weve been assured that its fine.But, you know, were a little curious to know more about it, can you help me?And I said, Tris?And I said, Oh, my goodness, thats what we got out of kids pajamas.
MARK LENO: California, in effect, required the use of all these chemicals to keep the furniture safe.
NARRATION: Back in 1975, California Governor Jerry Brown enacted a fire safety standard for upholstered furniture. It was called TB-117 and to meet it, manufacturers put flame retardants, including Tris and others, in couches and cushions.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 7-29-98):NEWS REPORT: Upholstered furniture burns fast.
MARK LENO: Because of the size of Californias marketplace, it became the de facto fire safety standard across the country and in fact in many other countries.
NARRATION: And because many baby products are considered furniture under California law, flame retardants started showing up in unlikely places.
ARCHIVAL ( KPIX, 4-26-13):NEWS REPORT: They may be plush and soft to the touch but there could be something sinister lurking in your baby products.
MARK LENO: The same chemicals, which we took out of childrens sleepwear were now in their pillows and their blankets and their cribs and their bassinets and their strollers.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-17-11):NEWS REPORT: Of the 101 products tested, 36 had chlorinated Tris.
NARRATION: And, scientists discovered, for years flame retardants had been leaching out of products and into the environment, building up in rivers, polar bears, house dust and even human breast milk.
LINDA BIRNBAUM (DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SCIENCES): We didnt think that, oh, these werent going to stay put in the product.We thought if they were in a nice cushion that theyd stay there.
NARRATION: Linda Birnbaum is the governments top toxicologist. In 2001, she became alarmed by studies showing neurological effects on animals exposed to a group of flame retardants called PBDEs.
LINDA BIRNBAUM: Baby mice were treated with these chemicals and showed effects on their learning and their memory and their movement.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-9-04):NEWS REPORT: The dust in her house contained trace amounts of a potentially dangerous chemical compound.
LINDA BIRNBAUM: Over the last 12 to 13 years there has been a great deal of information, which raised the level of concern that I have for at least some of the flame retardants.
NARRATION: Recentstudies involve babies, who absorb flame retardants from house dustand children exposed before birth.
LINDA BIRNBAUM: Some of the effects that were seeing are effects on the developing nervous system.Were seeing effects on the developing reproductive system. In a population of children that have been exposed to the flame retardants, those children have lower IQ, more difficulty in learning.
ARCHIVAL (2-1-11):MARK LENO (AT PRESS CONFERENCE): We know these toxic halogenated flame retardants are linked to cancer and infertility.
NARRATION: Worried about possible health effects, California assemblyman Mark Leno introduced legislation to change the fire standard.
He even got support from the states fire fighterswho believe flame retardants dont work, and give off dangerous toxic fumes when they burn.
But there was strong opposition from the flame retardant industry, which lobbied hard to keep TB 117 and from a group called Citizens for Fire Safety.
CITIZENS FOR FIRE SAFETY VIDEO:Flame retardants have been proven to increase the time that people have to get out of a fire.
MARK LENO: The message was, call your legislator to vote against Assemblyman Lenos bill, or your family will die in a fire. Over these past eight years or so, weve introduced probably five different legislative efforts. None of them got to the Governors desk because of the intensity of the lobbying.
NARRATION: But in May 2012, the Chicago Tribune exposed the industrys use of questionable science in its claims about flame retardants effectiveness.
ARCHIVAL (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, MAY 2012):PATRICIA CALLAHAN: Its one thing to have these health risks if youre getting this huge fire safety benefit. But I think when it comes to furniture, what we found was they dont work as promised.
NARRATION: The reporters also documented that Citizens for Fire Safety was a front group for the three largest makers of flame retardant chemicals.
ARCHIVAL (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, MAY 2012):PATRICIA CALLAHAN: Albermarle, Chemtura and ICL industrial products.
NARRATION: Within weeks of publication, newly reelected California Governor Jerry Brown ordered that the standard he put in place nearly 40 years before be revised to reduce the use of toxic flame retardants. He spoke about it in the documentary, Toxic Hot Seat.
ARCHIVAL (TOXIC HOT SEAT):JERRY BROWN: When the science reaches a point where, wow, thats not good, and its peer reviewed and we know it, then we take action.
ARLENE BLUM: This time it took eight years, not three months. But our flammability standard changed in California.
NARRATION: With Californias new standard, furniture is now less likely to contain flame retardants. And while no flame retardant has ever been banned by the federal government, a few, including PBDEs, have been voluntarily phased out of production when shown to be potentially dangerous.
The American Chemistry Council, which speaks for the industry, says todays products are safe.
STEVE RISOTTO (SENIOR DIRECTOR, AMERICAN CHEMISTRY COUNCIL): Most of the information on the potential toxicity of flame retardants is based on those products that are no longer on the market.If you look at the products that are currently available today, there is not a scientific consensus that there is an impact on human health at the levels that we encounter in homes.
MARK LENO: There are upwards of 80,000 untested chemicals in our daily life.
NARRATION: In fact, there are no specific tests required before a new chemical is put on the market. And very few chemicals are ever tested by government scientists.
MARK LENO: There are chemicals that are safe, there are chemicals that are unsafe.We wont know the different between them, though, because theyve not been sufficiently tested.
NARRATION: The industry is confident flame retardants save lives.
STEVE RISOTTO: The number of reported home fires, has dropped by 50% since these products were introduced to the market. Flame retardants delay the start of a fire, you know, by half a minute or longer.
NARRATION: But other things have changed to make us safer from fire. There are fewer smokers, more smoke detectors, and self-extinguishing cigarettes.
STEVE RISOTTO: Its very difficult to come up with a-a concrete answer to the question of how many lives did flame retardants save. We know they save lives.
ARCHIVAL (SENATE APPROPRIATIONS SUBCOMMITTEE, 7-17-12): SENATOR FRANK LAUTENBERG: Do you think that the addition of flame retardants in furniture foam has provided Americans with any safe significant protection from household fires?INEZ TENENBAUM, FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION: Our tests that we conducted on foam that was treated with FR chemicals, and foam that was not, showed that there was no difference in terms of retarding the flames.
LINDA BIRNBAUM: Do we need it? Does the addition of this chemical really provide safety? Are there other ways that we could provide for safety without adding chemicals maybe for which we have very limited information?
NARRATION: Over the years, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to overhaul the chemical safety system.Now, a new effort is underway to give the government more power to regulate dangerous chemicals.
ARCHIVAL (SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS, 3-18-15):SENATOR TOM UDALL: I believe we have the opportunity to actually reform a law and improve lives and save lives.
NARRATION: And, nearly forty years after it was pulled from childrens pajamas, chlorinated Tris is being voluntarily phased out of other consumer products.
LINDA BIRNBAUM: For things to be removed from the markets, it often takes the marketplace to speak.