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Attack of the Killer Mattresses – Coming to TV News Near You!
Trevor Butterworth, November 6, 2007

How did a new fire safety standard designed to save hundreds of lives a year get twisted into a health hazard? Who is behind “People for Clean Beds,” and why are journalists turning to a group which claims fire retardants will kill more people than the Black Death and AIDS combined?

Setting fire to mattresses has been a staple of consumer reporting for decades, and for good reason: the speed at which a dropped match or cigarette can turn a bedroom into an inferno is rapid and roughly 360 people die each year from mattress fires, with thousands more suffering sometimes horrible injuries.

On July 1st the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) imposed new federal flammability standards on all mattresses sold in the United States, which the commission estimates might save 240 to 270 deaths and 1,150 to 1,330 injuries per year. The key to the standard is that it limits the rate at which the fire grows so that people have a chance to escape before flashover occurs, a deadly situation when the heat from the fire ignites everything in the room typically at temperatures between 1100 and 1470 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to the CPSC, flashover accounts for nearly all the deaths that occur outside the bedroom and half that occur inside the bedroom. Given that flashover happens when a mattress fire begins emitting heat of 1,000 kilowatts, which can happen in under five minutes, the new CPSC standard requires the heat emitted stay at 200 kilowatts for 30 minutes, thereby giving people a much greater window of time to escape.

But there’s a problem, according to a September 25 CBS 2 Chicago, and an increasing number of local news stations across America – the new safety standard has been achieved by using chemicals that could make you sick. Despite the CPSC addressing this concern with extensive migration/exposure assessment studies that looked at the potential for dermal absorption, inhalation and ingestion of these chemicals in adults and children (including cases of bed-wetting) and finding no evidence of appreciable risk, news organizations found a klaxon to power their stories in the form of a pressure group “People for Clean Beds,” who are “fighting” to keep “mattresses and bedding clean from toxic flame retardant chemicals.”

It takes very little investigation to find out that “People for Clean Beds” is, perhaps, more correctly seen as a “person for clean beds” – namely Mark Strobel, a mattress maker who might have a lot to lose from the new fire safety standards and who started the pressure group.

Because they do not meet federal fire safety standards, Strobel mattresses can only be bought with a doctor’s prescription; and if you persuade more people that they are likely to have allergic reactions to the fire retardants, or that they are a threat to health, they might be more likely to seek out a prescription for a Strobel mattress rather than worry that they are going to sleep on a product that is significantly less safe in terms of flammability.

And yet, despite this billowing red flag signaling an economic benefit to frightening people about the new federal safety standard,  Strobel has been remarkably successful in grabbing media attention the media, as his mattress website shows.

Still, the conflict of interest doesn’t really convey what is fundamentally wrong with this story: it’s the sheer nerve with which Strobel, under the aegis of People for Clean Beds, denounces fire retardant chemicals:

“If our government guesses correctly for us in predicting the future of the next 40 or more years, that it is safe for everyone to sleep in these chemicals, we optimistically will save up to 300 people from fire. However, our exposure in mattresses is more close and chronic than any other type of chemical exposure. We have full body and breathing contact eight hours every day. If they are wrong, and we have been frequently wrong in the past, as many flame retardant chemicals have been banned after we find human damage. We could harm or kill up to 300 million people. All of us sleep on a mattress. The risk is huge. (Boldface emphasis, People for Clean Beds).

So there you have it: according to Strobel, the new fire safety standard might end up harming or killing 300 million people – which, to give some perspective, would put mattresses far ahead of the Black Death (approximately 40 million dead, one of the worst pandemics in human history), AIDS (approximately 25 million dead to date) and on a par with the total number of people worldwide who will, in the absence of any breakthroughs in treatment) cumulatively die from cancer over the next forty years (approx 240 million, based on World Health Organization estimates).

While this particular fake statistic has yet to surface in the press, it – and the rambling, ungrammatical prose - hasn’t led journalists to wonder about Strobel’s credibility as a scientific authority on the chemicals used in fire retardants. “They are in fact using boric acid which is roach killer,” Strobel told the Chicago CBS affiliate. And yes, boric acid is used in roach killer; but you might as well argue that because table salt can kill snails, it’s toxic and you shouldn’t use it in cooking.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes, boric acid has very low to low toxicity when eaten or applied to the skin, and it is quickly excreted from humans (unlike insects). It is not considered to be a carcinogen. Cases of accidental ingestion by infants did not show acute toxicity and symptoms disappeared. It poses no discernable risk as a fire retardant. Unless you eat the mattress.

The CPSC addressed all People for Clean Beds’ fears in its document, “Quantitative Assessment of Potential Health Effects From the Use of Fire Retardant (FR) Chemicals in Mattresses,” which demonstrated that exposure to the chemicals did not come anywhere close to levels where there might be negative health effects.

And yet, CBS in Chicago went on to draw an analogy between the new mattresses and the risks from lead paint and asbestos, once thought safe, now considered highly toxic. This was in part because it uncovered, so to speak, a smoking gun: two workers at a Simmons’ mattress plant in Janesville, Wisconsin were experiencing sinus and breathing problems and other ailments after the plant began complying with the new standard.

"We all know that we didn't have any of that before we started using the material," said one Simmons employee.

But the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a detailed inspection of the plant in July and August and concluded on October 22 that there was nothing hazardous there to workers.

The case is closed – except for local TV. On November 2, CBS 13 in Sacramento ran a story about the Janesville plant. The story noted that OSHA could not find any exposure to hazardous materials before adding, “But one mattress maker disagrees.”

“Mark Strobel makes mattresses with minimal flame retardants. Since 2003, he has campaigned against what he considers dangerous toxic overload. ’They are, in fact, using boric acid, which is roach killer,’ Strobel says.”


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