Service of Cures That Don’t

June 4th, 2012

Categories: Conflict of Interest, Cures, Full Disclosure, Government, Hidden Agenda, Politics

Fire retardant fabrics have been around for ages, though you wonder why as they seem to do harm, prevent little and serve no good purpose. If you’ve attended a home furnishings trade show in a windowless space, soon your eyes will sting and your throat will feel scratchy–a clue that something’s up. Could it be all that upholstery and carpeting?

In “Are You Safe on that Sofa?” in The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof writes that if there is a fire, toxic smoke is all you can expect from the so-called fire prophylactic.

He praises The Chicago Tribune for superb journalism for its investigative series, “Playing with Fire.” Kristof credits the series for revealing that these retardants were inspired by the tobacco industry: “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.”

Kristof continues: “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.”

The plot thickens as he reports that the advocacy group, Citizens for Fire Safety “pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture.” This group has three members, notes Kristof: The three major manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals. He notes that the group paid a doctor to lie about children who died in fires because there was no fire retardant on sofa cushions in their house. The kids didn’t exist.

He quotes a toxicologist who points to growing evidence that retardants “don’t provide safety and may increase harm” and who asks why they aren’t used in planes if they are so effective. Children who play on the floor breathe in dangerous dust from the chemicals and they can alter brain development in a fetus.

Kristof wraps up his op-ed piece saying that the purpose of these flame retardants is to make three companies rich. “The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.”

If there are laws that require furniture to use fire retardants this means that a manufacturer can’t sell a line of clean, organic fabric-covered sofas and chairs. Apart from paying someone to reupholster your sofa with untreated textiles and keeping children off the floor near upholstered furniture, what to do?

5 Responses to “Service of Cures That Don’t”

  1. GBS Said:

    Mr. Kristof is not my favorite columnist, but in this case I am grateful to him for this exposé of how a few utterly corrupt greedy men, thanks to that unholy alliance between all powerful big business, big government and big labor, can cause such harm to human beings and the environment in their relentless, mindless pursuit of the fast, easy buck. And thanks to you for having brought what he wrote to our attention.

    It is interesting that actions for positive reasons like saving lives in fires so often trigger unintended consequences. Even if the fire retardant fabric makers had been well intentioned, their efforts might just as well have backfired. We tend to forget that there is a reaction for every action and the law of unintended consequences. We also tend to forget the danger of too much power being housed in too few hands and Lord Acton’s axiom, “Power corrupts …” It is better to do nothing, than to do wrong.

    A century ago, the world was more or less at peace, but the fears about then were not dissimilar. Too few had too much power, and far too many were far too down trodden. Despite the efforts of reforming trust busters like Theodore Roosevelt, it was the radicals, Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, that took advantage of the discontent about them and almost succeeded in destroying civilization. Regrettably, they did succeed in setting back ethics, perhaps irretrievably, to such dismal lows as had not been seen since barbaric times.

    What can we do? Be careful. Go slow. But resist bigness in all its malignant forms whereever it is found including at the ballot box. Vote third party!

  2. Megan Hess + Jeanne Byington Said:

    Megan Hess—@mhess4—and I had the following exchange on Twitter:

    Megan: That piece in @ChicagoTribune was a game changer – really changed my perception of the industry

    Me: I fear this is only one of many industries like this.

    Megan: Agreed. But increased clarity/coverage is slow moving

    Me: Betw strained budgets & pressures from a shrinking advertiser base, it will be a while before investigative reporting speeds up.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You bring up a very good point: How the unscrupulous can make hay by strumming on the heartstrings and hot buttons of issues such as fire prevention. Who wants to be against something that appears to have a good intention, especially with a population that doesn’t like to read, may not have heard of the Chicago Tribune article and may not follow Kristof and/or The New York Times? Boy does this fall right into the hands of those with nothing but their profits in mind. I wonder where these people buy their upholstered furniture.

    Voting third party, at this time, is like not voting as there is little chance for a third party candidate to do more than take away votes from one of the others. A third party, to be significant, will need to grow strong well before an election–and there you go with bigness again.

  4. Lucrezia Said:

    The moral of the story is to avoid furniture shows. Now for a more serious tone, when were these laws put into effect? The upside is that the alleged ailments do not appear to be life threatening. Over and above that, the retardant may have saved lives, and whether or not said lives are those of children should be of little importance.

    Certainly there are research scientists looking for a job, and they might well be hired to find a way to detoxify retardants. The lives saved, which includes those of firemen, are too important to be ignored.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The full story is here–,0,1627036.story. I neglected to link to the Chicago Tribune story. There you will read that the poisonous gas doesn’t help firemen, it could hurt them.

    One excerpt: “Since the 1970s manufacturers have repeatedly withdrawn flame retardants amid health concerns. Some have been banned by a United Nations treaty that seeks to eliminate the worst chemicals in the world.”

    Another: “In the last quarter-century, worldwide demand for flame retardants has skyrocketed to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009 from 526 million pounds in 1983, according to market research from The Freedonia Group, which projects demand will reach 4.4 billion pounds by 2014.

    “As evidence of the health risks associated with these chemicals piled up, the industry mounted a misleading campaign to fuel demand.”

    Kudos to the Chicago Tribune to explore what’s going on here. We don’t often see this kind of journalism anymore.

Leave a Reply