We’ve been following the claims that new fire safety standards on mattresses are exposing people to chemicals for a while now, largely because they’ve been driven by some wild and crazy statistics (300 million will be harmed or killed, according to People for Clean Beds, an activist group started by a green mattress maker). But somehow we missed this exceptional piece of consumer reporting “New Fire Retardant Mattresses Source of Toxins,” which appeared on the New York CBS affiliate on December 21.
It’s worth watching, simply as a guide to how not to create a scientifically credible consumer report.
Step 1. Find a victim, believe what they say… immediately
Who knows where CBS found Joan Kramer, or what in fact is wrong with her and her husband. She claims that both of them experienced difficulty breathing, swollen eyes, and splitting headaches after sleeping on a new mattress. They blame the chemicals – and that’s good enough for CBS to build a segment on.
Step 2. Don’t call a doctor, don’t test the mattress
Undoubtedly Mr and Mrs. Kramer had a few rotten nights sleep; but what actually caused their symptoms? If self-diagnosis was a reliable method of figuring out what made us sick, we wouldn’t need doctors. Second, Mr and Mrs Kramer simply intuited causation from the correlate of a new bed; did they check for anything else unusual in their environment? How do they really know it was the chemicals in the bed when they never measured anything in their environment?
Step 3. Stick with a sample of one
If the new mattress code is really creating severe allergic reactions, couldn’t CBS find a bigger sample than just one couple and one mattress? That isn’t a statistic, it’s an anecdote. Yes, the segment goes to a factory, where a worker, heavily disguised, claims that making the new mattresses left workers sick. First, this is not a comparable situation: occupational exposure is fundamentally different to bedroom exposure. Second, the numbers of workers complaining of a reaction were small, and the the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a detailed inspection of the plant and found nothing hazardous.
Step 4. Distort the science
The Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted extensive migration/exposure assessment studies that looked at the potential for dermal absorption, inhalation and ingestion of fire retardant chemicals in adults and children (including cases of bed-wetting), and aging of the bed, and concluded in its document, “Quantitative Assessment of Potential Health Effects From the Use of Fire Retardant (FR) Chemicals in Mattresses,” that exposure to the chemicals required by the new standard did not come anywhere close to levels where there might be negative health effects. But while CBS showed this actual document to viewers on camera, it distorts its contents. “The research finds they [the chemicals] are human carcinogens and toxins,” says the reporter. But the report says they aren’t a risk because “the toxins are trapped inside the mattress.”
Step 5. Talk to an expert who has no expertise
Interview an environmental activist, in this case Emily Main of the Green Guide. She claims that it’s hard to measure how much chemicals the mattresses expose people to, so the CPSC has gone with an “innocent until proven guilty approach.” But that’s flat out false, which Main and CBS would have understood if they’d read the risk assessment. The CPSC’s goal is to protect consumers; it isn’t a profit-hungry corporation; and it went so far in its tests as simulating peeing on the mattress to see if urine would trigger chemical release.
Step 6. Don’t talk to a real expert, even for the sake of journalistic balance
Don’t, under any circumstances, interview a toxicologist, a representative of the CPSC, an allergenist, or anyone with a scientific credential. That just complicates things. CBS went, instead, to ABC Carpets and Homes in New York, where they found “natural” fire resistant bedding that doesn’t need fire retardant chemicals. The saleswoman told CBS that their mattresses are exposed to a flame for 90 seconds and if they don’t catch fire, then they’re fire resistant. But that’s not what the CPSC’s new standard is about. It has to do with delaying a fire from reaching flashover, the point where so much heat is released that everything in the room spontaneously catches fire. The question for ABC Carpets and Homes is how long after catching fire their beds reach flashover, but clearly it didn’t occur to the CBS consumer report team that there was a difference.
Result: One advertorial
What CBS produced is an advertorial for ABC Carpets and Homes, more suited to a shopping channel. By failing to test any of the claims for a risk against the science, by using a sample of one self-diagnosed couple, by testing nothing, and not even bothering to interview someone from the CPSC, let alone an independent toxicologist, the viewer is left with the message: buy a bed at ABC if you want to be safe.
And this junk just keeps on coming. WTHR Indianapolis have just promo’d “Sleeping with Danger” which breatlessly announces that:
13 Investigates has learned many new mattresses contain toxic ingredients, and those ingredients are making people sick. Investigative reporter Bob Segall shows you what’s really inside mattress, and what mattress manufacturers are not telling you.
To inoculate yourself now, read STATS “Attack of the Killer Mattresses – Coming to TV News Near You!” We’ll be sure to point out every mistake made by the report once it airs.