A New Documentary Reveals Why Sitting on the Couch Really Can Kill You

Slate’s design blog.
Nov. 24 2013 1:00 PM

A New Documentary Reveals Why Sitting on the Couch Really Can Kill You

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Ever wonder what those black-and-white labels on home furnishings are all about? The dangers of chemical flame retardants in household furnishings are the subject of HBO's Toxic Hot Seat, airing Nov. 25.

Courtesy of HBO

Picking out the right couch is such a daunting task for most people that they don’t stop to think much beyond size, shape, color, and comfort level to wonder what might be lurking on the inside.

Toxic Hot Seat, which airs Monday, Nov. 25, on HBO, is a stark reminder of the dangerous chemical flame retardants embedded in polyurethane foam-based home furnishings (not to mention baby strollers and car seats) that do a better job at causing birth defects and cancers than protecting us from fires. Although the documentary might not cover much new ground for those who’ve been following this matter closely, it’s a handy summary of the issues that humanizes the story via on-camera interviews with key players. And it will certainly make you rethink your next big furniture purchase.

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Another reason to buy vintage: Foam-based furniture made after 1975 is loaded with toxic chemicals.

Courtesy of HBO

Flame retardants were shown to leave chemical residue in children’s urine in the 1970s and subsequently banned for use in children’s pajamas. But California Technical Bulletin 117, the 1975 law enacted to reduce cigarette-instigated house fires, required all fabrics sold in that state to contain fire retardants and led to the widespread use of fire-retardant chemicals in all polyurethane foam-based furniture sold in North America, as explained in this clip provided by HBO:

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In addition to being a safety risk in homes, the toxic fumes emitted when fires start from these chemicals has contributed to elevated cancer rates amongst firefighters; in San Francisco, the breast cancer rate is six times the national average amongst female firefighters between 40 and 50.

Based on the Chicago Tribune’s award-winning 2012 investigative series Playing with Fire, the film was directed and produced by James Redford and Kirby Walker. It follows the lead of journalists who exposed how chemical companies and Big Tobacco conspired to risk public health by pumping dangerous chemical flame retardants into furnishings and toys for decades before a group of firefighters, moms, legislators, and other concerned citizens demanded change, leading to a reform of the law in July.

While the chemicals amazingly still have not been banned, it is now legal to make furniture without them, which is a start. As of January next year consumers can demand to buy their couches and armchairs and car seats free of toxic chemicals.

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