If You Vomit While Talking to a CBS Reporter Are You Allergic to CBS?

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.

12 Responses to If You Vomit While Talking to a CBS Reporter Are You Allergic to CBS?

  1. The article here here is correct in stating that CBS didn’t use good sceintific methods. It is wrong however in its assumptions and explainations. The chemicals most commenly used to make mattresses fire retardant have been provevn to be toxic and even banned in some places. In addition the assertion that the toxin is trapped inside the mattress is foolhardy. Go to any major bedding manufacturer’s website and they along with the better sleep council will tell you you shouldn’t keep you mattress more than 5 to 7 years because it is toxic after that point. Add even more toxins and we don’t know how long.
    CBS is in the business of entertainment and viewer awareness they accomplished this. The government is in the business of passing good laws but in this case ignored all the data so that it could “protect the public in a bedroom fire”. Considering the number of these fires where death occured that were started by an electrical fire,many were dead by smoke inhalation before the mattress flash. The insurance companies however will be saving a lot of money in the form of lower payouts while the consumer will be paying more in the way of higher mattress costs at all qualities. loss of the ability to make a less expensive mattress last longer because of the ability to turn over their mattress keeping the comfort longer, and the higher expense in trying to make a mattress softer initally. All this with added extra of more toxins, adding to an ever growing amount we must withstand in the total(may be there should be an ingrediant label like on bread 4%toxins so we can start to add them up like carbohydrates or sodium)
    CBS did their job of making people aware of a problem that is real even if this show in itself didn’t present all the evidence in its short 3 min. Thany you CBS for giving us something to investigate ourselves and shame on this writer for doing exactly what thry are complaining about slanted reporting.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Look, you can’t just say the chemicals have been proven to be toxic and banned, therefore mattresses containing these chemicals present a hazard, and yay to CBS for alerting us to this problem.

    If that was sound toxicology, the FDA would almost certainly stop you from eating your dinner tonight – as vegetables contain chemicals which are toxic if consumed in sufficient quantities.

    Unless you can show that the CPSC study is methodologically flawed, and that people are going to inhale specific chemicals from their mattress in quantities likely to cause some sort of reaction, you haven’t made a case.

    The CPSC have made a case – a very substantial one that there isn’t a risk. Fight science with science, not supposition.


  3. B. Heart says:

    Thanks for your elucidation regarding this topic. All chemicals are toxic in sufficient dose. What substances are not? Yet, the public often presumes (as do many environmental activists) that substances can be invented that will be benign at any dose. This is naive and wrong.

  4. I’m curious if you have actually read the CPSC’s assessment? The CPSC’s risk assessment admits that there are data gaps and that assumptions were made in the risk assessment process. While it finds migration, it nonetheless concludes that there is no harm, despite those data gaps. For example, one problematic assumption was the skin absorption rate for antimony. Since one was not available, one was assumed with little scientific support to justify. That isn’t necessarily sound toxicology. Another more significant limitation for assessing exposure for infants is that the risk assessment did not include any evaluation of exposures for children under the age of 5 years. The risk assessment assumed that because children under the age of 5 would sleep on mattress with polyvinyl chloride barriers for bed wetting purposes, and this would protect them from any released fire retardant chemicals. But there was no factual support given for this assumption, and it is contrary to published literature.

    In fact, the CPSC seems uncomfortable with the use of fire retardant chemicals. In connection with the recent proposed rule for upholestered furniture, Nancy Nord stated “I am pleased that the [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPR”)] addresses upholstered furniture fires without requiring the use of fire retardant (“FR”) chemicals. I was concerned that a previous proposal would require extensive use of FR chemicals and the health effects of some of these chemicals are not well-understood. Therefore I directed the staff to try to address the fire risk associated with upholstered furniture without encourage the use of FR chemicals.”

    While I’m not particularly impressed with the reporting, I wouldn’t jump on the CPSC’s bandwagon either.

  5. Beau says:

    I dont smoke, so a mattress with flame retardants added would seem a needless, wasteful cost.

    In the past , perhaps there may have been regulations that require treatment of furniture with flame retardants. Such a product feature seems best left to manufacturers and consumers to choose, not the Nanny State mandating one product for everyone.

  6. Jennifer, I did read the CPSC report, I’m not sure where the problem is with respect to antimony data gaps. As the CPSC notes, “extensive migration data were available for antimony trioxide.”

    In tests, the CPSC 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.

    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.

    Perhaps you could be more precise as to where the uncertainty is…

  7. Beau – cigarettes only account for 26 percent of all mattress/bedding fires.


  8. Beau says:


    I am impressed by your grasp of this topic. And by generally readable, punchy coverage of bugaboo stories about many products. Great work. Its nice for there to be a web site that can shed thoughful light on specious claims.

  9. Diane Stalter says:

    Denial is a wonderful tool. However it doesn’t protect your body from toxins. Just because it doesn’t affect you now doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. We all know that just because something is on the market doesn’t guarantee it’s safety.

  10. Diane,

    Thanks for your comment. Of course, it is logically impossible to prove anything is absolutely, 100 percent safe. In fact, logically, it is impossible to infer from the fact that the sun has risen in the East since the beginning of our planet that it will do so tomorrow. Of course, you’d be nuts to worry about whether it was likely to rise in the West anytime soon, and the reasons for doing so are based on what we know about astronomy, science, probability and so forth. This is why it’s useful to base your decisions on risk on evidence and not hypothesis.

    Everything, hypothetically, is dangerous. Do you have any idea how many people injure themselves in the kitchen each year? Or from lawnmowing or from televisions falling on top of them?

    Everything is toxic if you consume enough of it. Many vegetables contain naturally occurring chemicals which can make a rodent sick if administered in high enough quantities. However, wouldn’t you agree that banning or removing stuff with a guaranteed statistical risk and known mode of causal damage would be preferable to banning stuff that hasn’t any statistical risk or any known mode of action deleterious to health is a better priority?

    In the case of mattresses, I assume you at least have weighed the risk of house fire and flashover (the leading cause of household fire fatalities in the U.S.) against some evidence suggesting that you will get ill from sleeping on a mattress treated with fire retardant chemicals? I’d love to know how you actually thought through your decision. The obverse of denial, is, as I’m sure you’re aware, gullibility.

  11. Even though you think my first answer is folk lore let me give you something to think about. Each time we approve for saftey we measure that product(see replys above). We don’t however take into account the cumlitive variable or even worse the test was done on a clean mattress not one that had any other chemical added like human fluids or which dyes are being used to produce the product, not to mention the reaction with the type of foams being used. How about location both actual at time of use and general by area. All these ” saftey” products over the years have proven to be their own hazard. EX. car windows used to go all the way down in the rear law passed couldn;t open back windows public rebelion windows roll 1/2 way down just as many kids were fully or partly decappitated as fell out before. Car makers haowever saved on the amount of steel and other metal used in the rear doors. If there isn’t a problem in the first place of any size a repair is for another reason.

  12. Amazingblog Thank You for posting.

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