HBO’s ‘Toxic Hot Seat’ explores the danger lurking in your home

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“Toxic Hot Seat” premieres Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Courtesy of HBO

Our couches almost beckon to us after work — safe spaces in which we can curl up and wind down. But that cushion of yours may not be such a safe place to sit after all. Eighty to 90 percent of upholstered couches with polyurethane foam sold in the U.S. over the past 37 years contain chemical flame-retardants, say the filmmakers of HBO’s new documentary “Toxic Hot Seat.” The scary ingredients are linked to cancer, reproduction abnormalities and lowered intelligence in children. The piece delves into the multi-billion dollar chemical industry, with expert testimony that a product supposedly engineered to stop house fire fatalities doesn’t work. According to the movie, everyday chemical flame-retardants have damaged more people than they’ve saved — especially firefighters who work among the chemicals when they are burning and highly volatile.

Tony Stefani, a retired San Francisco Fire Department Captain and founder of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, spoke to Metro about his diagnosis with kidney cancer. He says cancers among his colleagues are all too common as well.

“Soon it seemed like we were going to firefighters’ funerals every other month,” he says.

The greatest irony is that these flame-retardants are proven not to reduce fatalities. The initial testing of their effectiveness was “dubious at best,” says Stefani. “The test in the documentary shows that the flame retardant-treated foam is equally flammable.”

Dr. Sarah Janssen of San Francisco Physicians for Social Responsibility agrees. ““There is no real life-saving benefit,” she says. “The film is coming at the right time. Awareness needs to be raised. There are hundreds of these chemicals used and only a small fraction have been shown to be safe. The most worrying is the effect on children’s IQ, which is very similar to lead exposure. It’s done much damage.”

Stefani worries about the longterm effect of the chemicals.

“You can replace your couch, but what happens then? The chemicals don’t go away. They’re still out there, and these chemical companies are producing tons and tons more each day.”

Dr. Janssen says that efforts to rid products of harmful chemicals often lead to more issues. “The problem is, as one bad chemical is banned, the chemical industry replaces it with another,” she says. “We just can’t go on like this. Consumers need to drive greater change. We need to lobby our state represnetatives. It can be done. The BPA issue was driven by consumers, and look how quickly manufacturers reacted and that changed.”

In the meantime, Dr. Janssen advises limiting exposure to these chemicals when possible. “Don’t eat on the couch,” she says. “The chemicals mix with dust and we pick them up on our hands constantly. Wet-mop and wet-dust, otherwise you’re just whisking up toxic dust. Also, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Cover your couch with a blanket or sheet to limit the amount of dust that’s kicked up.”

Learn more about protecting you and your family at www.psr.org.



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