Linking Flame Retardants and Cancer

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday, I wrote about the increasingly strong association between firefighting and cancer. Researchers believe the cancer rates are driven by synthetic materials in our homes, which create carcinogenic compounds when they burn. Firefighters inhale and absorb these toxins when they enter burning houses.

To prove that causal chain, Susan Shaw, one of the environmental scientists I interviewed for the piece, is now embarking on a larger study that will look at cancer biomarkers—changes in cells and proteins—in firefighters to try to crystalize the connection between these household chemicals and early signs of cancer. Shaw's results might show, incontrovertibly, that flame retardants and other household chemicals are what’s causing cancer in firefighters. (This is similar to the approach that scientists decades ago used to prove that smoking causes cancer.)

That’s an important step, too, because the American Chemistry Council and other defenders of flame retardants have argued that there’s still no direct link between flame retardants and cancers among firefighters.

Correlation isn’t causation, as the science-writing adage goes, and the latter is more of a smoking gun than the former. Shaw is attempting to prove both.