Chemical Industry Exposed: Tribune series points to dirty tricks used by flame retardant lobbyists
On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune published an update to its week-long "Playing With Fire" series on the dirty tricks that toxic flame retardant manufacturers used to kill legislation that would have banned some toxic flame retardants.
The disturbing and illuminating series exposed how flame retardant companies took a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook by deliberately misrepresenting the science around flame retardant chemicals regarding their effectiveness and their health risks. They even went so far as to employ an expert witness who repeatedly used a phony story about a child dying in a fire in order to defeat bills to regulate toxic flame retardants.
Since the Tribune published its series, momentum has been building for stricter oversight of toxic chemicals. A group of Michigan moms, health advocates, and labor leaders joined the National Stroller Brigade for Safer Chemicals this week, rolling into Washington with 125,000 signatures calling on Congress to protect people and the environment from toxic chemicals in everyday products.
In Michigan, we had our own front-row seat to tactics used by the flame retardant chemical industry a few years ago, tactics similar to those reported in the Tribune series.
Scientists had been sounding alarms about a brain-damaging, hormone-altering chemical called deca-BDE after evidence showed that it was particularly toxic to developing babies, and was contaminating everything from breast-feeding babies to Great Lakes fish. The problem was that the chemical has been added to TVs, computers, mattresses and products that we use every day, so there was a lot of opportunity for exposure.
So a broad coalition of health and environmental groups including the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Michigan Nurses Association, the Learning Disabilities Association, and lots of environmental groups organized to protect kids and the Great Lakes.
In 2009, Rep. Deb Kennedy and colleagues in the Michigan House, proposed legislation to phase out deca in products where safer alternatives were already in widespread use to protect children’s health, and eventually a hearing was scheduled. What happened at the hearing is much like what was reported in the Tribune series.
There was riveting testimony from scientists that the chemical was building up in fish in Michigan waters. Doctors and health professionals testified that the compound was potentially hazardous to children, and was not needed for fire safety. Yet a representative from a burn center testified that the bill would result in babies being burned. And while the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Fighters supported the legislation, the state fire marshal was opposed. The chemical industry in Michigan also weighed in against the bill. The testimony of the opponents followed a script written by the flame retardant industry, with lots of help from allies in the tobacco industry. We know now that the information they presented was very deceptive.
The behind the scenes story of why the State Fire Marshall, the chemical industry, and burn centers were opposed to the bill is compellingly told in the Chicago Tribune series.
Although it took many months, eventually the Michigan House of Representatives passed the bill in a bipartisan vote. But the Senate, controlled by legislators even more friendly to the chemical industry, never even held a hearing on the bill, and at the end of the session, the bill died.
In the meantime, new brominated flame retardants have been introduced to the market, including Firemaster 550 which contains the chemical TBB. TBB is routinely found in household dust and the environment, and scientific concerns about its toxicity are growing stronger. New testing has found emerging flame retardants in our air, water, sediment, and in wildlife; and biomonitoring studies are finding these compounds in all of us too.
A bill called the Safe Chemicals Act is pending in the US Senate that would require all chemicals to be assessed for their safety, provide safeguards for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children, and take immediate action on the worst-of-the-worst chemicals.
Please ask your Senators to stand up to dirty tactics, like those used by flame retardant companies, and support the Safe Chemicals Act.