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Flame Retardant Industry: Using Tobacco Industry Tactics to Promote the Asbestos of Our Time

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When I think about the connection between greed, lies, and unnecessary toxic health threats, asbestos or cigarettes jump to mind. Everyone knows how the tobacco industry denied the health risks of cigarettes for decades and continued to lie about the scientifically proven link between smoking and cancer and emphysema for decades, even after their own studies demonstrated the links. The asbestos story was remarkably similar, with industry recklessly deploying the cancer-causing chemical in our homes, workplaces, and even schools long after it knew that asbestos was killing people.

But until last week, many people had not heard about fire retardant chemicals, substances that pose serious health threats and that are made by companies who are using the tobacco industry's playbook to maintain their profits at the expense of our children's and families' health.

In a stunning four-part series last week, the Chicago Tribune found that the three leading makers of fire retardant chemicals have for decades used deception and phony "citizen's groups" to mislead the public, legislators and regulatory agencies about the efficacy and safety of their harmful products. In perhaps the most shocking revelation, the Tribune investigation exposed how the companies indirectly financed a prominent burn doctor who lied to state legislators about child burn victims, in order to falsely portray fire retardants as life-saving substances.

Professor Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, has called fire retardant chemicals the "asbestos of our time" because exposure is widespread and can result in devastating health problems. She notes that exposure to flame retardant chemicals is associated with "reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function," among other health hazards.

The Tribune stories show that for decades the fire retardant companies have been using the tobacco industry's tactics -- and even hired veterans of the tobacco industry's efforts and partnered with the cigarette industry to carry out their dirty tricks campaigns.

According to the Tribune, Dr. David Heimbach, a prominent burn doctor, lied in testimony to California legislators about an infant who died from burn injuries to falsely demonstrate that the baby girl could have been saved by fire retardants. When reporters confronted Heimbach with evidence of his lies, the doctor stated that the "anecdotes" he related were not "absolutely true" but were justified "because I wasn't under oath."

Dr. Heimbach acknowledged that he has repeatedly testified about the benefits of fire retardants as a paid consultant for Citizens for Fire Safety (CFS). As the Tribune found (and as CEH wrote about in 2010), this industry front group includes no citizens and cares nothing about fire safety. The phony "nonprofit" consists only of the three chemical companies that make the majority of fire retardants sold: Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products. In addition to funding Heimbach's lies, the Tribune exposed how the companies:

  • Lied about fire fighter groups, federal regulators, and the American Burn Association support of CFS;
  • Misled fire marshals to enlist them as unwitting opponents of new fire safety rules;
  • Distorted science, misrepresented research, and used bogus science to falsely demonstrate the "benefits" of their products; and
  • Partnered with big tobacco to counter burn victims who have advocated for fire-safe cigarettes that would be less likely to ignite furniture.

California's 1975 furniture flammability standard, called TB 117, plays prominently in this national debate because producers of furniture, baby products, and many other everyday items use massive amounts of fire retardants in order to meet this state standard. CEH has actively worked for years to revise this outdated standard and to eliminate all unnecessary uses of fire retardant chemicals. Our policy director attended the hearing where she heard Heimbach's lies -- and she witnessed state legislators buying into the lies, as their committee voted down the reform bill 8-1.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has found that flame retardants in household furniture are not effective, and has questioned the widespread use of flame retardants in household furniture that can pose unnecessary health risks. In 2008, CPSC proposed a draft standard for furniture flammability that focuses on making upholstery resistant to smoldering cigarettes without chemical retardants, since cigarettes are the largest cause of furniture fires. But until the proposed rule is finalized -- a process that can take several years -- California's outdated regulation remains the de facto national standard.

In response to the Tribune series, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin has called on the CPSC to move quickly on finalizing its proposed rule. It's time to end our reliance on this modern-day asbestos, and end the flame retardant industry's tobacco-inspired lies.

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