STATS ARTICLES 2008
Local TV’s Never-Ending Scary Bedtime Story
Trevor Butterworth, February 20, 2008
Playing up the imagined risks from fire retardants in beds puts the public in real danger
While the national networks have slumbered, the fear that new fire safety standards imposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on mattresses might be secretly poisoning us has been slowly filtering through local TV news across America. The initial driving force was a pressure group, People for Clean Beds, which claimed that the new mattresses were a toxic-apocalypse in the making, putting 300 million people at risk of harm or death.
After STATS pointed out that the worst-case scenario of 300 million dead was roughly equal to the combined toll from Black Death, AIDS, and the number of people worldwide who will die from cancer over the next forty years, and that People for Clean Beds was really a mattress maker, Mark Strobel, whose beds are exempt from the new standards and available only by doctor’s prescription, and that this might just be the collision between hyperbole and a conflict of interest (scaring people about new mattresses = new customers for Strobel beds), People for Clean Beds disappeared as a source from news stories. But now, thanks to WTHR Indianapolis, Mark Strobel is back:
"We already know the chemicals they are using are toxic and cancer causing," said Mark Strobel, president of Strobel Technologies, a mattress manufacturing company in southern Indiana. "Now we're sleeping in it, and most people don't know it's happening."
Strobel says the government's new flammability standard for beds is unnecessary and, he believes, outright dangerous because of what it means for many mattresses.
Boric acid, better known as household roach killer, is now being added to mattresses to help them pass the government's flammability test. Other chemicals are being used, as well, such as antimony trioxide, a flame-retardant (FR) chemical which the CPSC calls a "probable carcinogen."
"It's right under the ticking of the mattress in the cotton batting," Strobel said. "The labeling tells you to keep it away from children and it's extremely poisonous, and now we're putting it in our mattresses...and people are getting sick from these mattresses already."
Of course Strobel thinks the new standards are unnecessary and dangerous: he has a vested interest in selling “toxin free” strobel mattresses. But there is nothing new about these chemicals being used in fire retardant applications: boric acid and boron have been used for years, especially to treat wood, while antimony trioxide has been widely used, especially in fire retardants for electronic items and paint. One of the reasons that it is used is that it cuts down the volume of other chemicals. Either way, the idea that these are all new is false.
Furthermore the CPSC is not an industry – it’s a regulatory body, which is forcing mattress makers to adopt these new standards because flashover is the leading cause of death in household fires. Flashover occurs when the heat of a fire leads everything in a room to spontaneously combust – and it can take just minutes to reach the required heat. The new standards delay flashover for up to 30 minutes. If a news organization is going to give Strobel a soapbox, it has some obligation to make sure what he’s saying is scientifically correct. This is an issue where lives are stake.
But Strobel does what any activist does when pushing an agenda: he actively misrepresents what makes something poisonous. The fact is every chemical is poisonous at some level. Drink enough water and your liver will shut down. But that doesn’t mean a glass of water is toxic. Boric acid has been extensively tested and found to have very low toxicity. If you feed dogs very large amounts (268mg per kg of bodyweight per day for 90 days in males), you see altered blood chemistry and toxicity in the testes. Feed them less boric acid, you see nothing. Why? In simple terms, a chemical has to overwhelm the body’s natural pathways for processing and excreting what is ingested. This even applies to some “probable carcinogens” – which occur naturally in vegetables.
The CPSC estimated, after hitting a mattress 100,000 times in a sealed environment (to simulate wear and tear) that a total of 7mg of boric acid will be released from a twin mattress over ten years based on sleeping on the bed for eight hours a day for adults and 11 hours a day for children. Contrast that with the ‘no observed adverse effect level’ (NOAEL - the highest level of continual exposure to a chemical which causes no significant adverse effect) for boric acid in rats and mice for reproductive harm – 154 and 150mg per kilo of bodyweight per day.
Instead of trying to show, scientifically, why this extremely low level of exposure could be a risk, WTHR instead turned to Amy Beechy to support Strobel’s contention that people are getting sick.
Last year, she purchased a $700 mattress, and she quickly realized that new mattress was making her feel sick.
"I had flu like symptoms like fatigue, headaches, my eyes would burn," Beechy explained. "I just didn't feel good when I laid on it."
Beechy stopped sleeping on the mattress and immediately began to feel better.
Her doctor at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine tests his patients for exposure to heavy metals and chemicals. Dale Guyer says in the past several months, he's seen an increased number of patients test positive for antimony, one of the FR chemicals now being added to mattresses.
"Nobody has done a 20-year study to see what could happen with the compounds in these mattresses," Guyer said. "This could be a potential serious health risk for a lot of people and they aren't even aware of it."
The anecdote seems compelling until you look for actual evidence of cause and effect. First, the CPSC did test for lifetime exposure, and didn’t find any risk. Second, we are exposed to antimony in food and water and in plastic containers, industrial emissions, and car exhaust emissions. Who says the antimony Guyer found came from the mattresses? Did anyone measure the surface of the mattress for instance? Or better yet, did anyone measure the levels of antimony or any of the other fire retardant chemicals in Beechy’s urine prior to purchasing the bed, and again then after sleeping on it for several nights? Without answers to these questions, all we have is idle speculation based on a self-diagnosis.
If WTHR had turned, once again, to the CPSC risk assessment, it would have found that after hitting a mattress 100,000 times to simulate wear and tear, a twin mattress would release 210 micrograms of antimony over ten years. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for antimony is 2.3 milligrams per kilo of bodyweight per day. Think about how much antimony Beech might have been exposed to for a few nights – if, that, is there was any antimony in the mattress she purchased.
With antimony exposure, the CPSC found the combined hazard index (HI) for all routes of exposure was 0.005 for adults and 0.01 for children. This is incredibly low and is not considered by conventional medicine to be a risk. As the Environmental Protection Agency notes, “a respiratory HI greater than 1.0 can be best described as indicating that a potential may exist for adverse irritation to the respiratory system.
The estimated cancer risk for antimony was 0.027 per million over seventy years for adults and 0.037 per million for children over 70 years. Again, this is so staggeringly low as to be, effectively, non-existent. The benchmark for concern is 1 in a million or higher over 70 years.
The hazard index for boric acid for all routes of exposure combined was 0.01 for adults and 0.05 for children. So again, not even close to anything resembling a risk.
There is another problem WTHR’s selection of Dr. Guyer as a source: he has a vested interest in finding heavy metal and other chemical exposures in people. That’s the business model for the Institute for Molecular Medicine. He is also not quite the mainstream medical source that viewers might think from the eponymous title of his institute. As an advocate of complementary medicine, he has recommended some rather controversial therapies. As Director of the Advanced Medical Center in Zionsville, Indiana, he advocated Insulin Potentiation Therapy, which, as the site Quackwatch notes,
No major medical school, hospital, or other institution has embarked on a clinical trial, largely because the ‘therapy’ is dangerous, potentially lethal if too much insulin is administered, and does not a have a sound biological basis.
Dr. Guyer’s current clinic also offers chelation therapy, although it doesn’t say what the precise conditions are for its use administration. Though chelation is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat heavy metal poisoning, its use in other situations is considered either dangerous (especially as a ‘cure’ for autism) or no more effective than taking a sugar pill. As the American Heart Association notes,
The American Heart Association’s Clinical Science Committee has reviewed the available literature on the use of chelation (EDTA) in the treatment of arteriosclerotic heart or blood vessel disease and finds no scientific evidence to demonstrate any benefit of this form of therapy. Furthermore, employment of this form of unproven treatment may deprive patients of the well-established benefits attendant to the many other valuable methods of treating these diseases.
The American College of Cardiology, the American Medical Association, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, the American College of Physicians, and the Food and Drug Administration all hold similar positions on the use of chelation for anything other than heavy metal poisoning, hypercalcemia, or digitalis toxicity.
In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post in 2005, Guyer said, "In my experience, almost everyone undergoing chelation therapy subjectively feels a lot better.” But that may be no more than a placebo effect. The question is whether Dr. Guyer recommends chelation for levels of chemical exposure that mainstream medicine, toxicology and regulatory bodies consider harmless. Quackwatch has an entire sub-website devoted to chelation, explaining “why doctors who advocate the general use of chelation therapy should be avoided.”
By all means cite Dr. Guyer, but the fact is he doesn’t represent mainstream toxicology or even medicine; however, his use as a source to comment on the toxicological aspects of flame retardants conveniently ramps up the fear factor. Guyer fits into and pushes along the dramatic narrative established by the reporter. One can only imagine how the story might have sounded if WTHR had asked a university-affiliated toxicologist to comment on the actual risk – one with neither ties to industries making mattresses or flame retardants, or a vested interest in an alternative medicine practice treating chemical exposure.
Given the extensive testing carried out by the CPSC, the cautious approach to risk, and the fact that flashover kills people every year, the burden is on Strobel, Dr. Guyer, and WTHR to come up with evidence that the CPSC erred in its calculations – or missed something vital. Instead, WTHR returns to Amy Beech, who appears to be some sort of citizen-oncologist. She is:
skeptical of the [CPSC] findings. "It makes no sense at all," she said. "It's common sense to me that even a low level of a carcinogen emitting from a product cannot be good over time."
But if that was true, vegetables would be far more dangerous than mattresses, as half the chemicals that occur naturally in the plants we eat have been shown to be carcinogenic in rodent studies. But they’re not and that’s because cumulative exposure to low levels of carcinogens isn’t necessarily toxic. This is why journalists shouldn’t ask for expert opinions from non-experts, or necessarily trust what appears to be common sense.