Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.
It’s hard not to get cynical in Washington, DC these days. Just this past week, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) hosted an ice cream social on Capitol Hill – I kid you not. ACC’s beckoning slogan: “Join and learn about the benefits of chlorine chemistry and enjoy a tasty treat.” I’m told hundreds of House staffers partook of this propaganda fest, at least the tasty treat part. My initial reaction? How can health and environmental advocates hope to compete? Especially if one can successfully curry favor merely by offering a scoop of a staffer’s favorite flavor.
But just as I began to despair, Part I of a major exposé on a far more serious campaign of deception by the chemical industry ran on the front page of the Sunday Chicago Tribune. (Actually, the article occupies virtually the entire front page of today’s edition.)
The Chicago Tribune story is the first in a series titled Playing with Fire, and Part I will be followed by additional stories on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The investigative reporters who deserve the credit: Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne.
The chemicals in question are brominated flame retardants, chemicals produced in huge volumes and added to everything from furniture foam to TV and computer casings to myriad children’s products. The chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBTs) and have been detected in marine and terrestrial mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates – not to mention people. They are strongly linked to a range of health and environmental impacts.
Here’s the title of today’s story in the Tribune:
Fear fans flames for chemical makers
Manufacturers of fire retardants rely on questionable testimony, front groups to push standards that boost demand for their toxic — and ineffective — products
And here’s a small excerpt that sets the stage:
These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public's fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause.
The deceptions of the chemical industry in this matter are multiple. They include the creation of a “citizen” front group called Citizens for Fire Safety – eerily reminiscent of the “Coalition for Chemical Safety,” the front group that ACC set up in 2009 to create the impression of strong support for its version of reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). After it was exposed as a front group, CCS's existence was scrubbed from the Internet.
Despite its warm and fuzzy name, Citizens for Fire Safety is the creation of the three main producers of brominated flame retardant chemicals – Chemtura, Albemarle and ICL Industrial Products, which the Tribune reports control 40% of the global flame retardant market.
Another key deception? That the chemicals actually work. In a companion piece to the front page story, the Tribune reports that testing, including by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, found that the chemicals don’t appreciably reduce the risk or slow the progression of fire. And they are far less effective than ready alternatives such as wrapping foam in naturally fire-resistant wool or other barrier materials, as shown in testing by Underwriters Laboratory. See also this 2010 paper in Reviews on Environmental Health, co-authored by the current Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.)
I’ll leave you to read the Tribune series for more details. I’ll close by simply quoting Launcelot from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: The truth will out.