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Fanning the Flames; Sportscaster Survives Grill Explosion

Aired January 26, 2013 - 16:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hey there. Thanks for being with us.

I want to get to something very important today. Our big story -- it's about chemicals known as flame retardants. They are ubiquitous, in everything from furniture to baby products. But they're also linked to health problems, from neurological issues in children, even to cancer.

Now, it may seem like a tradeoff -- fire safety versus other health risks, but it's not as complicated as you might think.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I care about flame retardants.

GUPTA (voice-over): Terrifying pictures, and a call for public safety.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flame retardants have been proven to increase the time that people have to get out of a fire.

GUPTA: This ad comes from the Citizens for Fire Safety. According to their Facebook page, a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments, and industry leaders. A key part of the message as Dr. David Heimbach told lawmakers safety depends on flame retardant chemicals.

DR. DAVID HEIMBACH, BURN SURGEON: We're talking about children's safe products. The safest children's product I know is one that doesn't catch on fire and one that doesn't burn the child.

GUPTA: In April of last year, he called in his testimony to the Alaska legislature.

HEIMBACH: There is no question in my mind that fire retardants do give people more time to escape fires.

GUPTA: Thanks in part to efforts like this, flame retardants are now found in baby strollers, car seats, building insulation, electronics, even your couch. But it comes with a price, dozens of studies connect one group of flame retardant compounds known as PBDEs to this thyroid problems, reproductive issues and lowered I.Q.s in children.

U.S. production stopped in 2005, and some restrictions on imports are in place, but products with PBDEs can be and still are imported. And the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating three additional flame retardants after finding evidence they could be neurotoxins, hurt child development, and even cause cancer.

In 1976, Arlene Blum found the fire retardant chemical 'Tris" used in children's pajamas was a potential carcinogen. Her work led to its ban in kids' pajamas. But, today, more than 30 years later, Tris is still used in sofa cushions.

ARLENE BLUM, CHEMIST: So, if you have 20 pounds of foam in your couch, you have a pound of these chemicals in your couch. That's a lot.

HEIMBACH: So I think everything is a risk versus a benefit. And I think the benefits of not having little children catch on fire or other poor people catch on fire, way outweigh the dangers of a case of carcinoma that has never been shown to actually happen in people.

GUPTA: I could see the Dr, Heimbach's point. That is until I met Andrew McGuire, founder of the Trauma Foundation. It's an organization devoted to injury prevention.

(on camera): Are these chemicals, are these retardants effective?

ANDREW MCGUIRE, TRAUMA FOUNDATION: The way retardants are put into foam, they are not effective.

GUPTA (voice-over): Wait, what was that again?

MCGUIRE: The way retardants are put into foam, they are not effective.

Why? Because foam doesn't ignite from a match or a flame or a cigarette. The fabric ignites first. When fabric ignites, the flame of the fabric and the heat produced by the fabric burning overwhelms the flame retardant. So they don't -- they're not effective.

GUPTA: Take a look at this test from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the CPSC. The chair on the left is full of flame retardant chemicals. The one on the right has no flame retardants. In less than a minute, the differences between the two chairs are minimal.

In July of last year, the commission's chair testified before the Senate.

INEZ TENENBAUM, CHAIR, CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION: If fire retardant foams did not offer a practically significant greater level of open flame safety than the untreated foam.

GUPTA (on camera): Yes, I'm a dad. You think you're doing the right thing by buying products that are flame retardant. You're saying that they're both ineffective and potentially harmful.

MCGUIRE: They're ineffective. They cause toxic problems that could last generations.

GUPTA: Simply take a look and find out.

MCGUIRE: There's a label, I bet. Every couch has this label.

GUPTA: Come in here. Take a look.

MCGUIRE: Notice: this article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings, technical bulletin 117. Care should be exercised near open flame or with burning cigarettes.

GUPTA: And when you read that, what does that mean to you?

MCGUIRE: It means it's loaded with toxic flame retardant chemicals that don't prevent fires, yes.

GUPTA: This is a hotel. There are thousands of people who have probably sat on this couch.

MCGUIRE: Same with your home.

GUPTA: Everywhere?

MCGUIRE: Everywhere.

GUPTA: It's quite a striking story. We add all these chemicals to things. They don't work, they're not necessary, and they're probably toxic.

MCGUIRE: Right, but they're incredibly, incredibly profit-driven.

GUPTA (voice-over): Globally, flame retardant chemicals are a growing business, grossing more than $4 billion a year.

BLUM: There's three companies, Albermarle, Chemtura, Israel Chemicals Limited, that manufacture and sell the chemicals, and they have various advocacy groups who talk about burns and fire, and have very big budget.

GUPTA (voice-over): Advocacy groups like the Citizens for Fire Safety. Remember them? Not just any citizens. Their tax records lay out a specific mission, to promote the business of the chemical industry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Citizens for Fire Safety has blocked the fear- based campaigns of special interest groups and defeated onerous legislation in every major state in the U.S.

GUPTA: When California, Washington state, and Alaska tried to introduce legislation limiting flame retardants, Citizens for Fire Safety had Dr. Heimbach speak on their behalf.

HEIMBACH: The child sustained an 80 percent burn. This is a little person the size of a teddy bear. We had to split open her fingers because they were so charred. We had to split open her arms. We took care of her with a ventilator, with renal dialysis for about three and a half weeks, until she subsequently died.

GUPTA: It's a story the doctor told over and over again. I wanted to meet the family, but Dr. Heimbach didn't answer my repeated calls. But he told "The Chicago Tribune" he never treated this child. And fire officials say the fire and death had nothing to do with flame retardants.

MCGUIRE: He unfortunately got it in his mind that this flame retardant chemicals in furniture were a good idea.

GUPTA: Heimbach told "The Tribune" that Citizens for Fire Safety paid for his travel and some of his testimony time.

(on camera): A burn surgeon took money to make claims about something that not only was not true, but potentially harmful if not deadly.

MCGUIRE: Right, I was there at the Senate hearing in the California state Senate. He portrayed taking care of an infant that was burned in Alaska.

HEIMBACH: A 7-week-old baby was in a crib, laying on a fire retardant mattress on a non-fire retardant pillow. Mom put a candle in the crib. Candle fell over. The baby sustained a 50 percent burn.

MCGUIRE: The mother put a candle in the infant's crib, which I thought was -- I never heard of.

GUPTA (voice-over): In fact, "The Chicago Tribune" found no case involving a candle, and the doctor said all his different stories were about the same baby. He told the paper he, quote, "changed facts to protect patient privacy."

I invited him on to talk about his role in Citizens for Fire Safety and his testimony, but he declined. In September, the Citizens for Fire Safety Web site was shut down, and the site now redirects people to the American Chemical Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance. That's the industry's main lobbying group.

The companies behind Citizens for Fire Safety declined our request to come on camera, but they did provide this statement. "Citizens for Fire Safety institute advocated for strong fire safety standards in keeping with our longstanding commitment to reducing the risk of fires. Our companies continue to inform policymakers, stakeholders and consumers about the contribution of flame retardants to fire safety."

I reached out to the American Chemistry Council. They also declined to come on camera but provided this statement, "The flame retardants currently used like all chemicals are subject to review by government regulators across the world, and the scientific profile on each should be reviewed and considered separately. Efforts to hastily remove flame retardants in one broad stroke only demonstrate a misunderstanding of the science and could undermine public safety."


GUPTA: I should point out the EPA is currently reviewing the safety of three flame retardant chemicals. That's in addition to the ones the company has already phased out in 2005. The EPA could force them out of production as well, but they say that review won't be finished until the end of next year.

There's something else I want to share with you regarding fire safety. ESPN "SportsCenter" host Hannah Storm -- she had a terrible accident in her home when this propane grill exploded. It left her with first and second degree burns on her face, her neck, her chest, and her hands.


HANNAH STORM, HOST, ESPN'S "SPORTSCENTER": Then I yelled inside to my daughter who was setting the table, my 16-year-old. I said, "Mommy is on fire. You have to call 911."


GUPTA: Mommy's on fire. Call 911. Amazing stuff.

Storm returns to the scene of the accident for the first time with me. That's next.


GUPTA: ESPN "SportsCenter" host Hannah Storm suffered severe burns as the result of a propane grill accident at her home in early December. I had a chance to visit with her as she returned to the scene of the accident for the first time.


STORM: So, I go out to light the grill. You know, I'm timing my dinner. So, I go out to heat up the grill, right?

GUPTA: Heat it up, go back in, get whatever you're going to be grilling.

STORM: Now, I'm ready to throw the meat on and get dinner on the table. Keep in mind, the lid was open, OK? So I turn all the gas off.

GUPTA: Did you smell gas?

STORM: No, and I didn't know until now that propane is heavier than air. The propane, it hadn't lit, but the propane had gathered and pooled above the grill and below the grill, inside the bottom of the grill. I turn everything off.

I turn the gas on again, very low, and I try to ignite it. And that was my mistake.

Immediately, it was a ball of fire. And it came right here. And then I yelled inside to my daughter who was setting the table, my 16-year- old. I said, "Mommy's on fire. You have to call 911."

So I came here, I turned the cold water on, and I just started doing this. And my daughter was across the room, you know, on 911, and they, of course, they're asking all these questions, and I'm trying my best to answer them. She says, "Mom, are you -- what are you doing? Are you splashing cold water on yourself?" I said, "Yes."

And she goes, "You have to stop." I was like, "What? How can I stop?" Because I wanted to jump in the sink, you know? Anything I could do to just relieve the pain and stop the burning process. But apparently, not knowing if it was a third degree burn or not, right, do you risk infection by doing -- by just splashing water?

GUPTA: Yes, yes, anything can give you an infection. What did they tell you to do?

STORM: I just stopped, and I just started hopping around. I couldn't -- I mean, I couldn't get anywhere.

GUPTA: Did they tell you anything else, like put anything else on there?

STORM: No, just stop and we're on our way.

I knew that, you know, whatever I saw staring back at me in the mirror, that was going to be my starting point. But this was all, al burned. All of this, like here.

You can see that it's slow coming back. It was all the way around. I had some infection issues here.

This was all just brown and burned and discolored. I didn't think it would be career ending. If it was career ending, though -- I mean, my family wouldn't love me any less, you know? My friends wouldn't love me any less. I mean, it didn't touch anything inside.

GUPTA: What makes you cry right now?

STORM: I think it's traumatic. I think it's -- resets your priorities or re-enforces your priorities, probably a better way of saying that. I think when your children are in a position to care for you in any way, that's very profound.

I think I understand how lucky I am and am overwhelmed by that.


GUPTA: You know, being in a hurry, trying to get dinner on the table, something that I'm guilty of myself. But when it comes to grill safety, there are a few important lessons you can take away from Storm's accident. Only use a grill in a wide open, non-enclosed space. Always open the lid first, then turn the gas on, then light the grill quickly but safely.

Now, Hannah did all these things right, but there is one last important point to remember. If it goes out, if the grill goes out, wait 15 minutes before reigniting it. This is something Storm admits she did not do, and she hopes others can learn from her mistake.

Still ahead, food fraud, fake ingredients, more common than you think. How you can fight back? That's next.


GUPTA: You know, if you are what you eat, you might be having an identity crisis. A nonprofit independent lab in Maryland unveiled its new food fraud database this week and they found that we all might not be getting what we paid for or what we expect.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So there's no third party oversight. Aside from the criminal act of manipulating the food, adding an unknown component, for example.


GUPTA: Let me be more specific. Liquid and ground foods, they're going to be the easiest to tamper with.

A couple of examples:

If you look at pomegranate juice, for example, it could be mixed with grape juice or pear juice.

Olive oil, a lot of people need this, but it can be diluted with cheaper oils.

Like to add spices to their foods. Paprika and saffron, they could often have dangerous food colors added to them.

And also this, remember the nice pictures of tuna. Tuna sushi -- it may not always be the only thing that you're eating. It could actually something known as escolar. It's an oily fish that can in fact cause stomach problems.

A lot of people asked, what can you do?

I've got a couple pieces of advice. Buy whole foods whenever you can. You can squeeze, grind, and grate them yourself. It's one way to be safe.

Also, buy brands that you trust. You know, as our friends at CNN's Eatocracy l like to say, know the who, the when, and the where of the products. And don't always simply by into the latest health trends.

You know, food fraud tends to occur more frequently in high value ingredients that are linked to health benefits which consumers will pay a premium for. So, you know the old adage. I think it really applies here. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

All right. This is pretty exciting stuff. Every year, people just like you submit I reports in their quest to become part of CNN's Fit Nation triathlon challenge. Right now, we're ready to announce our 2013 6-pack, six of our viewers who are going to race the Nautica Malibu triathlon right alongside me in September.


TABITHA MCMAHON: My name is Tabitha. I'm 34 years old and I live in Indianapolis, Indiana.

STACEY MANTOOTH: My name is Stacey Mantooth. I'm coming to you from the great city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

RAE TIMME: My name is Rae Timme.

DOUGLAS MOGLE: My name is Douglas Mogle and I'm 32 years old.

WILL CLEVELAND: My name is Will Cleveland. I'm 28 years old.

ANNETTE MILLER: My name is Annette Miller. I'm 32, from Lobelville, Tennessee.

MCMAHON: When I was 19 years old, I became ill with ulcerative colitis very suddenly. I went through several months of very difficult treatment, a lot of medications.

MANTOOH: I'm 6'2". I'm always been a big guy. Brought on secondary complications, sleep apnea, my girlfriend is not too happy about, pre- hypertension, which my doctors not too happy about.

MILLER: You're too fat followed me into adulthood. I didn't realize how much until now.

TIMME: After 25 years, I'm working with the Colorado Department of Corrections, I get to retire on October 1st.

MOGLE: Thirteen months ago, I went into sudden cardiac arrest at the Notre Dame/Southern Cal football game. Little did I know on that brisk October day, my life was going to change forever.

MILLER: My twin sister had to have kidney implants. I wasn't even tested or considered to be a donor because of my weight.

MOGLE: I was down for 52 minutes and I was shocked nine times and rushed to the hospital.

MILLER: There's a little 10-year-old kid in here that still wants to play, wants to be a part of something, be a part of the team.

GUPTA: Hey, it's Sanjay Gupta.

MILLER: Hey, Dr. Gupta. How are you?

GUPTA: I'm doing great, Annette. How are you?

MILLER: I'm fantastic this morning.

GUPTA: I wanted to say surprise, welcome, and congratulations. We have already picked you.

Surprise and welcome to our team.


GUPTA: We've selected you. We're very excited. How are you feeling? You all right?

MCMAHON: I am. I'm so overwhelmed and so excited and a little terrified, but it's going to be great.

GUPTA: We have already picked you --

TIMME: Oh, yay! Oh, my gosh. You surprised me. I thought I was hearing background noise.

GUPTA: I get that a lot. I'm often referred to as background noise.

How are you feeling?

MOGLE: My heart jumped a little bit. Not enough to make it go off.

GUPTA: That would be bad.

MILLER: OK. I can talk now.

MANTOOTH: Looking forward to the journey. But you know, just looking forward to this being one step.

GUPTA: How are you feeling?

CLEVELAND: You got me.


GUPTA: So, throughout the training, these guys are going to experience a complete lifestyle change. More exercise, better nutrition, and take a healthier mental state overall. It's a total life transformation that happened to me when I started training. And I'm excited to see how this is all going to unfold for them.

What about you? You feel like those New Year's resolutions have you beat? I've got some tips when we back to get you back on track.


GUPTA: OK, you may have been putting in the work, exercising, but also noticing the scale doesn't seem to be budging. You have hit this dreaded weight loss plateau. A lot of people experience this. But don't let it be a reason to give up.

We're going to get you over this hump. Now, your body has likely gotten used to your new died or your new exercise regimen. So, to ramp up the results, you have to consume fewer calories or exercise more. That part you probably figure.

But here's the good news, it doesn't take much. Adding just 15 minutes to your typical exercise regimen is often enough to yield results. Also try this, switch things up at the gym a little bit. If you alternate between the treadmill, the elliptical, and the bike, keep your muscles challenge, throw in some weights every now and then. And your body burns more calories throughout the day. Now, before we go, I want to give a happy birthday to my middle daughter here, Sky. She turns 6 years old.

Sky and the rest of my family, they're part of the reason that I do everything I do, including staying in shape. I want to be around for them. I hope you do the same.

Your top stories are up next in "THE CNN NEWSROOM."