We are James Redford (documentarian and founder of the Redford Center) and Kirby Walker (co-producer & director of TOXIC HOT SEAT along with James). Because of our involvement with the environmental organization NRDC, we learned about flame retardants and this battle in California that has been going on for 5 years so that furniture could be made without these chemicals. Kirby went to a UC symposium on this issue and met several of the people who ended up in this film, who have been working on this cause tirelessly for years. They were more colorful characters than if you were writing a screenplay! James jumped in to co-produce in March of 2012, and the film is being debuts on HBO on Monday, November 25 at 9 PM nationwide. Official site here: http://www.toxichotseatmovie.com

Ask us anything!

retweet: https://twitter.com/reddit_AMA/status/402834018473111552

James: We are all living in the era of chemicals. And there is no way around that fact. But we have it within our power to create a safer environment for our children now that we know how many hazards there are for many of these chemicals. In short, it may be too late for those of us that are older but what about our kids and grandkids? In the era when a lot of environmental solutions seem out of reach, this should be pretty simple. Don't put unregulated, untested chemicals in our homes. Know what's in your environment and make sure it is safe. In a Senate hearing in the summer of 2012, Senator Boxer asked a panel of lawyers, lobbyists, firefighters, and a chemist the following question: Should chemicals be proven to be safe for pregnant women and unborn children before they are introduced to our homes?

Watch our film to see the response.

Kirby: The time has come for sane, scientific chemical reform in our country. Thank you for coming by to ask really thoughtful questions. It was a pleasure. Please check us out on HBO next Monday at 9 PM.

Comments: 135 • Responses: 23  • Date: 

Science_Monster104 karma

Do you think it's ethically responsible to make what will likely be a sensationalist documentary about a topic that all of you seem to know little about, and none of you have conducted any testing on?

Please forgive me if my assumptions are wrong, I'm only going off of credentials and information given in the AMA so far. As someone in the chemical industry I've frankly had enough of California's shit. I have to replace something in my formulas every six months because of you guys.

edit: secondary question, why do you guys seem so reluctant to name one of these 'chemicals'?

ToxicHotSeat-33 karma

James: Every piece of information in our documentary is based on hard research facts. For more details read the five part series Playing with Fire written by three Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. http://media.apps.chicagotribune.com/flames/index.html

I think it's ethically questionable NOT to tell the story.

Kirby: And our documentary has been widely viewed as being even-handed and not sensational.

James: There are many details we left out because we were not interested in destroying lives or creating salacious controversy that would not have furthered the story.

Kirby: Although we do not claim to be scientific experts in this field nor are we chemists, we interviewed chemists with PhDs and the foremost fire safety expert in the US, Dr. Vyto Babrauskas, and UCSF Physician Dr. Sarah Janssen (http://www.saferchemicals.org/sarah-janssen.html).

Science_Monster58 karma

I'm reading your other posts, you mention a few general classes of chemicals that span literally thousands of compounds and one product specifically that I cannot find to actually exist. Firemaster 5000? can you tell me who makes it? possibly link to an MSDS or TDS?

You'll understand my hesitation to take your secondary sources as gospel, I'm a scientist.

ToxicHotSeat-32 karma

Kirby: We totally understand and respect scientists, that is why we turned to scientists for our facts.

Simon_Plenderson28 karma

These sorts of things are always a statistical "Sophie's Choice"... Everyone agrees that pollution is deadly, but nobody wants to ban hydrocarbon based fuels because it would destroy the economy and set civilization back to the pre-industrial revolution era... in this case you save people from fires, but you might give fewer people cancer...

Have you looked at the upside for flame retardant chemicals and weighed them, objectively, against the downsides? If so, what are your findings?

ToxicHotSeat-54 karma

James: Ok, so, about 2-3,000 people on average die every year in house fires. What percentage of those fires would have been prevented by chemical flame retardants in the couches? None. Meanwhile, we have decided to put chemical flame retardants in MILLIONS of pieces of furniture in the hopes of stopping these fires. It's insane.

Kirby: Nearly 300 million U.S. Citizens are being exposed to these chemicals in their homes.

LovelyTurret47 karma

That seems like faulty logic. How many more fires would be caused without fire retardant furniture? Nobody is running to their couch in the midst of a house fire for safety, this is simply attempting to eliminate a potential source of ignition. How many of those 2-3,000 deaths had smoke alarms in their homes? Obviously those don't work either, lets get rid of them right??

ToxicHotSeat-31 karma

Kirby: Our fire safety experts assert that there is very little if any benefit to the flame retardants currently used in household upholstered furniture. Maybe a few seconds of escape time at the most. Most likely this will not save may lives. We share your concern over deaths in house fires, but these flame retardants don't look to be the solution.

unmined22 karma

If you got your way, how many people would die fire-related deaths vs. those who would die due to "toxins?" Especially things like fire-retardant pajamas for kids.

Also, what proof do you have that these "toxins" hurt people? Do you have peer-reviewed sources?

Lastly, what "toxins" are the worst? What do they look like and how do they manifest as symptoms?

ToxicHotSeat-24 karma

Kirby: Good questions! There have been literally thousands of peer-reviewed studies from hospitals like UCSF.

James: In the lab, so many changes have been recorded in peer-reviewed papers. The big challenge to ALL of us is to change our mindset about the risk of chemicals because in a court of law it is hard to say one particular chemical at one point in time caused this particular cancer cell to grow. It is impossible to prove that. But if you sit back and look at the research and look at the predominance of changes that occur, it is only a matter of common sense that these are very unhealthy to our bodies.

Let's share some links. http://killercouch.ceh.org


Kirby: To the fire question, the really upsetting part of the story is that these chemicals do not provide fire protection. They do not work as promised. They work when they are used at NASA levels in aviation and certain prison settings, when they are used at very very high settings. But that is not what we have in our homes. What we have in our homes does not provide meaningful fire protection. That is why we have the Internation Association of Firefighters in support of changing these regulations. Because firefighters pay the biggest price because of inhaling the toxic smoke that comes from these items when they burn.

unmined2 karma

Thanks for the quick and through reply! Question about firefighters since they were mentioned ...

Both my brother and sister are firefighters and they have never mentioned this to me. Are firefighters (in general) aware of the toxicity issue? Or is this something that you are trying to address and raise awareness?

EDIT: They tend to use breathers when working large fires. Is there danger in exposure to skin, but not inhalation?

ToxicHotSeat-10 karma

James: Yes, one of the dangers to firefighters that is becoming increasingly clear is the outgassing that occurs after a fire has been extinguished when many firefighters have removed their breathing apparatus.

Kirby: Many firefighters are just now becoming aware of this problem. Check out Retired Captain Tony Stefani's organization called San Francisco Firefighters cancer prevention fund. He is doing research and studies that will have national implications and he is a major character in our film.

James: most fires used to be wood smoke. Today it is a toxic plastic soup.

noargumenthere9 karma

Do you have any stats on how quickly a fire spreads without flame retardant materials versus with. (I think there was a post yesterday saying a room can be engulfed in flames in three minutes if there is a flame.)

Are there any other options that you know of to make upholstered furnishings less flammable?

I think it's important to educate consumers about these chemical additives. Did I read that mattresses contain boric acid (powder) which can be inhaled and cause problems? Does the boric acid at least help with insect control?

ToxicHotSeat-14 karma

James: if you take two couches, and put it in a real fire setting: one with chemical flame retardants and one without (in the foam), the benefit is only a few seconds.

Kirby: The fabric that furniture is made of has to be flame retardant inherently by its weave. You can't make a couch with certain silks or egyptian cottons because they are very flammable. So the new flammability test is going to be called a "Smolder Standard" which means if a cigarette or lit object lands on it, it's how long it takes for that item to go up in flames. With the new regulations it is going to be virtually the same. It's only once it hits the foam and the inside, and by then, it's really on-fire, so it's a minimal difference.

James: By the time the flame hits the foam all bets are off. We had not heard about boric acid before.

Kirby: Isn't boric acid what you use to kill cockroaches?

James: In 2014 California is going to change their flammability standard. Instead of testing chunks of foam against an open flame, which is not real time conditions, the test will become a smolder standard. And that is a real fire setting. So 80% of current upholstered furniture coverings are ALREADY naturally flame retardant, things like wool. Most natural fibers do not burn easily. Fabrics with tight weaves don't burn easily.

noargumenthere2 karma

I did a quick search and read how all the chemicals in homes now make toxic cyananide based smoke and dripping couches. Syntethics, PU foam, wall to wall carpets with synthetic fibers and chemical laden padding means homes are worse off in a fire. Even vinyl in wall coverings are an issue. That is crazy, if its true. I can believe it though, because gov regulation could just be adding insult to injury.

I don't know that I ever understood about children's PJs needing to be flame retardant. I mean, if its an important issue then why only children's sleepwear? Older people don't need to be protected too? But I don't think flame retardants in children's PJs seems like a reasonal solution.

Shezzam6 karma

I remember it was an issue here in Australia when I was a kid, late '70's early '80's, kid's pyjamas were melting on to them and/or spontaneously combusting in front of kerosene heaters, fires, gas heaters, cigarettes... I can't remember the reason for it, only that for some reason it was pj's specifically.

noargumenthere1 karma


ToxicHotSeat-12 karma

Kirby: Synthetic pajamas are inherently flame retardant. Most PJs in this country are not cotton, they are now synthetic.

James: In order for cotton pajamas to be flame retardant, they had to have flame retardants added to them. It's just the majority don't need them because they are made from other fabrics. Bigger companies that make synthetic fabrics found there was a market to be had by promoting pajamas as flame retardant. The irony today is that if you want organic pajamas for your children, it must be labeled "not for sleepwear."

noargumenthere1 karma

I might think leather furniture, not PVC or vinyl covering, might also be naturally flame retardant.

ToxicHotSeat-12 karma

Kirby: I think so too, even though leather is not highly flammable, the foam inside still has to contain flame retardants.

noargumenthere0 karma

Yes, boric acid is new and being added to bedding.

It does help desiccate roaches when they clean themselves I think.

That's the things, it is sold as a safe product for roach control, but its not considered safe in bedding by some, because its a powder that you can inhale over the life of the mattress.

One link I found quickly.


I'm not all that familiar with how the borates are in bedding.

ToxicHotSeat-14 karma

Kirby: There is a real need for chemical reform at the federal level so that we know whether products in our home, whether it's mattresses with boric acid or products in our plastics or furniture are safe before they are in use. We don't believe all chemicals are unsafe, we just believe they should be tested for safety before they are in our homes. Keep your eyes out for toxic chemical reform in the Senate right now. A new bill called "The Chemical Safety Improvement Act" which will be the first major reform of the toxic substances control act in 37 years, should make it to the Senate floor this year.

chooter8 karma

What are the most toxic products that are commonly added? Worst culprits?

ToxicHotSeat-34 karma

James here: speaking on the topic of flame retardants in upholstered furniture, that's what we specifically focused on.

Kirby here: flame retardant products that are added to products made out of polyurethane foam. They are found in most upholstered home furniture and many baby products (nap pads, changing pads, some not all breast feeding pillows, and some baby mattresses). These chemicals are not tightly bound to the foam and when they are pressed down, ether the gas contains the chemicals or more importantly, these chemicals stick to dust particles and they are ingested from your couch by touching dust, putting it in your mouth… kids have the highest levels because they have the most contact with the dust, putting it in their mouths.

James: it's a class of chemicals that likes to stay in your body and build up in fat. And it mimics hormones. So your body thinks it's a hormone and starts behaving differently. There are thousands of research papers that point to things like thyroid problems, adrenal problems, neurological and learning disabilities, some cancers are linked to these chemicals.

Kirby: Some studies are linking them to autism. And they are very close to being able to prove the negative effects to firefighters, because when the chemicals burn they become dioxin, and we are seeing increased levels in firefighters of very rare cancers normally found in the chemical industry. San Francisco has the highest level of female firefighters, and we are seeing 6 times the rate of breast cancer in the 40-50 year old females as opposed to the same female group that is not in the firefighting field.

reindeermeat20 karma

Can you name some of these most toxic chemicals?

ToxicHotSeat-15 karma

James: Polybrominated flame retardants. Some are called PBDEs, Chlorinated TRIS, Brominated TRIS and a new product called Firemaster 5000.

Kirby: Firemaster 5000 is one of the newest and its chemical makeup is proprietary so we don't know very much about it. Except scientists expect that its chemical structure is very similar to the ones that have been phased out.

echo_xtra7 karma

As someone who remembers carbon-tetrachloride grenades, I think you'd have to admit we have come a ways in fire extinguishing technology. So as not to carry the parade of negativity, I would like to ask: what do you believe is the most positive development in fire suppression technology?

ToxicHotSeat-8 karma

Kirby: Oh definitely. Sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire alarms and reduction in smoking.

James: Co2 detectors too.

Kirby: Your question is excellent because one of the characters in our film said the methods of controlling fire have always been toxic, questionable to our health. Asbestos was a favored flame retardant for a period of time.

James: By the way, flame retardants CAN work if you use enough of them. Aeronautics, hospital and prison settings. There are certain commercial / institutional settings like NASA where the standard is high. But to use that much in our homes, it makes the foam product hard and very expensive. And that's why flame retardants only work in higher quantities than we use as consumers. Your airplane seat and a seat aboard the space shuttle are effectively retardant but it probably cost thousands to make.

Kirby: The items that you will be able to buy after 2014 when this regulation have been changed will still be safe and flame retardant. They still will have to pass fire-safety standards. They just won't have flame retardants in the foam in the center of the article.

Dsvkb6 karma

How much more difficult was making a documentary over a movie considering all the fact checking you must have had to do with everything you filmed?

ToxicHotSeat-11 karma

Kirby: We have a binder that is 6 inches thick of documents that have been fact-checked and approved by lawyers for every word that everyone says in our film. Be prepared if you are doing a controversial documentary to spend a lot of time, money and energy on fact checking. ESPECIALLY if you want it broadcast.

James: Documentaries tend to be less expensive to make but take longer to make. The production teams tend to be smaller and more manageable and you don't have actors.

bhalp14 karma

Have you ever directed a movie? If so, what is your favorite animal?

ToxicHotSeat-8 karma

James: I directed a movie called Spin with Stanley Tucci. But it had airplanes, not animals. My favorite animal… wow, what a great question. I will have to go with a red-tailed hawk.

Kirby: Yes I have directed a movie. And my favorite animals are definitely dogs, large and small, and I have a number of them.

ToxicHotSeat-10 karma

Speaking of dogs! Many dog beds are made of polyfill and they don't have flame retardants, but there must be some made with polyurethane foam.

They are also in gymnastics mats, and they are studying the effects on gymnasts now.

Shezzam1 karma

Hey again! I am one semester off graduating, but looking to do honours/masters in film production, is there a particular school or academy that stands out as being better than the rest? It is hard to tell, and cost is kind of irrelevant if going to one school means I will get work, any recommendations?

ToxicHotSeat-3 karma

Kirby: I went to graduate school at Stanford and got my master's in communications. But it is now in the art department and it's now an MFA, but that's a school that specializes in people who only want to produce or direct documentaries primarily. UCLA?

James: USC, UCLA, and SVA here in New York along with NYU.

Kirby: One caveat I would say is that going to grad school for film does not necessarily equate getting a job.

James: My advice would be to get a PA-type job, and kick around at it for awhile to see if you like it.

Kirby: Sometimes you learn as much during the job as you do during school. Our editor Jen went to film school and she learned how to be an awesome editor, though.

Shezzam1 karma

Some of my text books write that 70 hours of footage = 1 hour on film is a very lean production proportion, what have you guys found you have run at while filming Toxic HotSeat??

ToxicHotSeat-2 karma

James: well we did not have a high ratio, because we were just catching things as they went.

Kirby: We are going to ask our editor right now. I think we were a 1o-to-1 editor. The more footage you shoot in the field, the longer your editing time will be.

James: This was not a verite film. We were specifically investigating a story and that reduces your footage. Versus parking and waiting for things to occur.

Shezzam1 karma

Oh, wow. Didn't even think of the verite aspect! So if it is a scripted piece it should run a lot lower?

ToxicHotSeat-3 karma

James: Yes. Ours was not scripted but the ratio is usually much less. Unless you are on a tour with an unlimited budget.

Kirby: ours was unscripted so it is a documentary.

chooter1 karma

How did this get started? And when?

ToxicHotSeat-8 karma

James: In the sixties and seventies, it became clear that many children were being harmed in house fires. So we decided to put chlorinated tris (which is a flame retardant) in children's pajamas. Meanwhile, there was a study done in Berkeley that found that these chemicals were mutagenic, and in 1975-1977, they were removed.

Kirby: Low and behold, these chemicals were not banned, and through efforts by the tobacco lobby to have furniture fire safe instead of having firesafe cigarettes (all 50 states have self-extinguishing firesafe cigarettes, now by the way). Rather than worrying about the ignition, they said to worry about the source! So rather than change the cigarette, we changed the world around the cigarette. And there it stayed for nearly 40 years. Even though we have firesafe cigarettes and electronic cigarettes.

James: One of the things you hear is how fire deaths have gone down since chemical flame retardants were put in furniture, but in reality, the reduction in fire deaths have been related to reduction in smoking and better protection of our homes with fire alarms and water sprinklers being installed in commercial buildings. Other measures have reduced fire deaths, not flame retardants.

Thenervemann0 karma

Is the documentary something you guys always wanted to do? This is a big achievement! Any future plans that have yet to be unveiled?

ToxicHotSeat-1 karma

Kirby: Yes, we both love documentaries. That is what we do, and we have got a few projects in development right now, but none fleshed out enough to probably share.

James: I have a film about how childhood trauma literally alters children physiologically and makes them into different people when they grow up. The working title is "Paper Tigers." Estimated release date is late 2014.

DAVEEeMC2-2 karma

What about flame retardants that show up in the food we eat? Fun fact - we use human sewage (called sludge) to fertilize farm fields in america. That too contains very high levels of contaminants such as flame retardants. Have you considered doing a video about this?

ToxicHotSeat-3 karma

Kirby: Fascinating topic! We don't plan on doing another film on toxic chemicals or flame retardants. So we'll leave this topic to another filmmaker.

ToxicHotSeat-13 karma

The average piece of upholstered furniture is in use for 30 years. So a piece of furniture will be around for 30 years and the chemicals will leak for the entire life of the product, as the foam decays.