To you, the sofa is probably just a place to park your butt. But to Nicholas Kristof, writing in his latest New York Times column, it is a symbol of how money and politics ruin everything. That's because nearly all couches in the United States contain flame retardant chemicals that do little to protect people from fires, but do a lot to harm them with dangerous chemicals linked to cancer, fetal impairment, and reproductive problems. Europe has moved to scale back the presence of chemicals, Kristof notes, "so why the difference?" “The money is jingling,” says a Senate Democrat backing legislation called the Safe Chemicals Act.
Flame retardants were first added to couches because of Big Tobacco, which was under attack in the 1970s and '80s because of house fires caused by cigarettes. Rather than make cigarettes safer, they secretly manipulated the National Association of State Fire Marshals into lobbying for flame retardants in furniture. Today, tobacco has much less power in Washington, but despite well-known health dangers posed by many flame retardants, the chemicals stay in furniture because of chemical industry money. So when politicians rail against regulation, Kristof thinks we should remember "we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money." Click for Kristof's full column. (Read more Nicholas Kristof stories.)