“If you want a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics, this is it,” New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof said in an editorial about the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals used on furniture – a story the Chicago Tribune broke in recent investigative series called “Playing with Fire.”
According to a number of health and safety officials not vested in the flame retardant industry, the chemicals, which are supposed to fireproof sofa fabric and other furniture, are not only practically useless for their intended purpose, they are downright dangerous to human health. These experts say studies conducted by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and other tests have confirmed that these toxic chemical flame retardants used on furniture provide a meaningless level of protection against fire.
Linda Birnbaum, the head toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told Mr. Kristof that “If flame retardants really provided fire safety, there would be reason for them in certain circumstances, like on an airplane. But there’s growing evidence that they don’t provide safety and may increase harm.”
Thomas Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts biologist, told Mr. Kristof that some of the chemicals used to treat furniture are virtually the same as PCBs, chemicals that have been banned because of their toxicity and their link to lowered I.Q., diabetes, and a slew of other serious and often permanently debilitating conditions.
University of California Berkeley chemist Arlene Blum told Mr. Kristof that the chemicals “can alter brain development in [fetuses].” Some flame retardants have been linked to cancer, fetal impairment, and reproductive problems.
The risks appear to be great for so little, if any, benefit. So why are these dangerous chemicals being used in common household furnishings?
According to the investigation, years ago, when research showed that cigarettes were responsible for causing so many house fires, the tobacco industry was told to develop a more fire-proof cigarette. But instead of doing that (tobacco executives argued such cigarettes would lose appeal with smokers), the tobacco industry successfully turned the blame and focus away from the cigarettes and toward the furniture itself. Big Tobacco then spent millions of dollars building a movement among fire safety professionals rally behind the push for fireproofing furniture instead of cigarettes.
The advocacy group Citizens for Fire Safety, which describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders” was established. The group aggressively pushes for flame retardant mandates.
However, Mr. Kristof notes, “Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.” He says these chemical companies, under the guise of a grassroots group, paid Dr. David Heimbach, a prominent Seattle physician and former head of the American Burn Association, to serve as a head witness and testify in favor of flame retardants in some states. Dr. Heimbach swayed courtrooms with horrific stories of children who suffered grisly injuries on couches and pillows that weren’t flame retardant.
The only problem with Dr. Heimbach’s moving stories, the Chicago Tribune story notes, is that he made them up.
“These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public’s fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause,” the Chicago Tribune reports.
As a result, toxic money fuels deceptive but highly influential campaigns that can persuade people to act against their own interests, even their own safety.
“This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of ‘burdensome government regulation,’” Mr. Kristof writes. “When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.”