26 January 2008

When you get down to it, common sense has left the capitol.

Fighting for Safety

There are times when a issue gets weighed down with so many interest groups that the obvious answers get lost. Take this example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (which has as many issues as the FDA) is trying to stop people's couches from catching fire when people fall asleep smoking.

For years, there has been an obvious way to address accidental fires: requiring tobacco companies to make cigarettes, which are the leading cause of fatal fires, self-extinguishing. But tobacco was exempted from CPSC jurisdiction when the agency was created in 1972, and a 1994 attempt to give the agency authority over cigarettes failed.
The alternative was to focus on the furniture that was catching fire. And the tobacco industry, which wanted to avoid further regulation of cigarettes, did its best to steer the CPSC in that direction.

You can stop the fire either at the origin or by controlling the fuel. (Technically you could control the oxygen, but that doesn't really work in this scenario.) That sets up the two main interested groups, the tobacco companies and the furniture makers. But then you look at how to make the furniture less flammable and you see that the most common way is to use brominated compounds. So that adds in the chemical companies that produce these brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have a stake in the game. But that pulls in the scientists that are worried about the effects the BFRs could have on the biochemistry of both humans and the environment. The scientists have some reason to be worried; before BFRs, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were used as fire retardants and those have some serious heath issues.

Whew. The tobacco companies have historically been quite good at lobing the various branches of government to look past the obvious problems with their product. This is no different.

Increased awareness of the health risks of fire retardants, meanwhile, confronted the CPSC with a dilemma: how to strike a balance between the need to prevent fatal fires and the risk of exposing millions of consumers to potentially harmful chemicals. It was enough of a conundrum to drive away consumer groups, which in recent years have chosen to sit out of the upholstered furniture debate.

The answer is obvious to me. Add the risk of setting yourself on fire to the list of risks you take when you take up smoking. There isn't a good way out of this problem other than making the population less stupid. Getting the tobacco companies to do things takes too long and the chemical option is not safe. The only way out is education and coming to terms with the fact that there are some things that the government can't do.

Besides shouldn't the CPSC be focusing their energy on all the questionable products that are coming over from China? The ones with melamine and lead and who knows what else? I think that might be a better use of their time and our taxes.

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