Manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals, an industry that got a boost from Big Tobacco's shadow money decades ago, are being exposed to increased public scrutiny. In the fallout, a front group formed by the three biggest manufacturers, calling itself "Citizens for Fire Safety," has been shuttered.
The Chicago Tribune published its "Playing with Fire" series in May 2012, catapulting highly toxic flame retardants -- present in many household consumer products -- into the national spotlight. In the process, it not only highlighted the work of a handful of chemists who've been fighting to ban the most toxic of these chemicals, but it also exposed the "deceptive tactics" of the industry's main front group.
"Killer Couch Chemicals"
The Tribune series began by exposing "a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility."
The dire warning echoes what chemist and mountaineer Arlene Blum wrote in a 2007 Huffington Post article on "Killer Couch Chemicals": "When tested in animals, fire retardant chemicals, even at very low doses, can cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder. Ongoing studies are beginning to show a connection between these chemicals and autism in children."
Flame retardants are most commonly found in polyurethane foam, such as in couches and other upholstered furniture as well as in some baby products. They are also in insulation, carpet padding, and the plastic casing around some electronics such as televisions. The problem with that is that foam is full of air. So according to Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton, "Every time somebody sits on it, all the air that's in the foam gets expelled into the environment." It tends to settle on the floor, which means that children and pets are most at risk for ingesting it.
Flame retardant chemicals have also been found consistently in treated sewage sludge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has okayed sludge treated to reduce pathogens (but not other toxic contaminants) for spreading on farmland, including on crops intended for human consumption such as vegetables.
According to a profile published in the New York Times last week, Blum was largely responsible for inducing manufacturers to stop using one of the most toxic flame retardant chemicals, chlorinated Tris, in children's pajamas in the late 1970s.
When Blum learned that the same chemical, which California lists as a carcinogen, is once again the most commonly used flame retardant in furniture and baby products, she founded the Green Science Policy Institute to focus on "reducing the use of unnecessary flame retardants due to their adverse impacts on human and environmental health."
A Flame Retardant Front Group Only the Tobacco Industry Could Love
According to the Tribune, several decades ago "[s]moldering cigarettes were sparking fires and killing people. ... The industry insisted it couldn't make a fire-safe cigarette that would still appeal to smokers and instead promoted flame retardant furniture -- shifting attention to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames."
Big Tobacco first won over the fire marshals, using the influence of the National Association of State Fire Marshals to pass federal rules requiring flame retardant furniture while convincing the group that putting flame retardants in furniture was a better way to reduce fire hazards than making cigarettes safer.
The three companies, which control 40 percent of the world's market for flame retardant chemicals, were the group's only members and funders. But it didn't call itself a trade group. It misleadingly labeled itself "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety."
The group claimed it "had joined with the international firefighters' association, the American Burn Association and a key federal agency 'to conduct ongoing studies to ensure safe and effective fire prevention.' Both of those organizations and the federal agency, however, said that simply is not true. 'They are lying,' Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), told the Tribune. 'They aren't working with us on anything.'" Other deceptive techniques include hiring expert witnesses to mislead lawmakers.
After the Tribune made inquiries, CFFS deleted the passage about the coalition from its website. But despite continued scrutiny, in mid-August, the three companies had not publicly severed ties -- financial or otherwise -- with the group.
A Front Group Folds as Companies Move into Electoral Arena
Then, at the end of August, CFFS' website came down.
It was replaced with a notice that says, "The three founding members of Citizens for Fire Safety Institute: Albemarle Corporation, Chemtura Corporation and ICL Industrial Products have elected to conduct all advocacy and communications efforts through the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA)."
The ACC is a powerful chemical lobby group with a $112 million budget. It has spent $1.3 million on federal elections so far in 2012, as an outside spending group, and $3.9 million on lobbying at the federal level. As the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has reported, it has spent $648,600 on ads to support Tommy Thompson in his U.S. Senate race against Rep. Tammy Baldwin here in Wisconsin.
The ACC has been a major obstacle to chemical reform at the federal and state level. Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, warns that if government and industry do not confront the "lack of scientific integrity and ... disregard for public health" repeatedly shown by the flame retardant manufacturers, the "same companies will plot the same deceptive campaigns."
As CMD has reported, consumer and public health groups are focused on updating federal laws regarding toxic chemicals in order to prevent continued harm. The groups advocate for chemical regulation reform via the proposed "Safe Chemicals Act" (S. 847), which has passed out of committee to the U.S. Senate for a vote. SCHF has asked its coalition members and supporters to encourage Senators to support S. 847.
In the meantime, flame retardants are in everyday household products, doing untold harm. Arlene Blum has written, "Enough is enough. It is time to stop adding chemicals to our furniture and our environment unless the manufacturers can first show they are safe."