Even your sofa isn’t safe

Yet another example of just how fucked we are.

The problem with flame retardants is that they migrate into dust that is ingested, particularly by children playing on the floor. R. Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, told me that while there have been many studies on animals, there is still uncertainty about the impact of flame retardants on humans. But he said that some retardants were very similar to banned PCBs, which have been linked to everything from lower I.Q. to diabetes, and that it was reasonable to expect certain flame retardants to have similar consequences.

“Despite all that we have learned about PCBs, we are making the same mistakes with flame retardants,” he said.

Linda Birnbaum, the top toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health, put it to me this way: “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.”

Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told me, “For pregnant women, they can alter brain development in the fetus.” Her research decades ago led to the removal of a flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children’s pajamas. But chlorinated Tris is still used in couches and nursing pillows (without any warning labels).

The European Union has banned one common flame retardant, Deca BDE, and has generally been more willing to regulate endocrine disruptors than the United States. Why the difference?

“The money is jingling,” notes Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat of New Jersey. Lautenberg has introduced legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act, that would tighten controls — but it has gotten nowhere.

It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.

This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” 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.