Are You Safe on That Sofa?

May 20, 2012

Chances are that if you’re sitting on a couch right now, it contains flame retardants. This will probably do no good if your house catches fire — although it may release toxic smoke. There is growing concern that the chemicals are hazardous, with evidence mounting of links to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive problems.

For years, I’ve written about this type of chemical, endocrine disruptors, but The Chicago Tribune has just published a devastating investigative series called “Playing With Fire” that breaks vast new ground. It is superb journalism.

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.

The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.

An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”

But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants:

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