Flame Retardant Industry Accused By Legislators Of 'Lies' About Lobbying Efforts

The television advertisement opened with a blazing fire and the words "Dangerous" and "Deadly" across the screen in bold letters. A narrator soon adds a more detailed warning: "In a matter of minutes, fire can destroy a home, a business, a family."

Five years ago, as a bill came under consideration in the Maine House of Representatives to ban the use of a common flame retardant, spurred by growing knowledge of its health risks, the chemical industry rolled out opposing spots on local television and radio stations, as well as full-page color ads in newspapers.

Hannah Pingree, then Speaker of the Maine House and lead sponsor of the bill, witnessed the onslaught and fought back, eventually prevailing with the passage of the ban on the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) in her state. This May, when Pingree read the Chicago Tribune exposé on the chemical industry's "decades-long campaign of deception" across the country to keep flame retardants in popular children's products, she said she became "outraged."

"The series rang true for me," said Pingree, who left office in December 2010 and is now a consultant for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a national coalition working to reform toxic chemical regulation.

Pingree was one of 21 current or former state legislators who signed a letter on Monday addressed to the president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, Calvin Dooley, asking him to hold member companies of his trade association accountable for "unethical behavior," such as "deliberately misrepresenting the science" and "lying about the death of an infant girl."

On Wednesday, the legislators received Dooley's response. In addition to defending the three companies highlighted in the Tribune series and the "safety and efficacy" of their products, he wrote that his trade group doesn't "advocate with state legislatures or state regulatory agencies on their behalf related to flame retardant chemistries."

Pingree and other advocates point to evidence that suggests otherwise, including records of lobbyists, paid by the ACC, in Maine, Washington and California. Some legislators recall ACC lobbyists working alongside the Citizens for Fire Safety, a front group that the Tribune reported had been formed by the three companies -- Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura -- which also happen to be the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants.

"The ACC turns around and lies about their own involvement," Pingree said. "This certainly calls into question their credibility even more than we thought. It's a disturbing twist."

When The Huffington Post asked the trade group about the accusations, it said in an emailed statement that the response to the legislators was "intended to communicate that ACC was not involved in the legislative advocacy activities raised by the state legislators in their letter. ACC routinely weighs in on chemical-related legislation when that legislation is not based on sound science and sets a bad precedent for the regulation of all chemicals."

Meanwhile, evidence of the dangers and pervasiveness of common flame retardants continues to mount. Research published just this week suggests that even small doses of Firemaster 550 can increase the chances of obesity, anxiety disorders and other health problems. Recent tests have also suggested that flame retardants may not even succeed in aiding in the prevention of fires.

"The fire just laughs at it," an expert told the Chicago Tribune.

Not only did the Tribune stories remind Pingree of the "bad tactics" industry used in attempts to block her safe chemical bills, she said they also struck a personal cord, as she now struggles to protect her 15-month-old daughter, Elsie, from exposure to toxic chemicals that have been found in everything from car seats to peanut butter.

"It's frustrating," she said. "There are so many sources that I know we can't just make personal decisions to avoid."

Between 2003 and 2007, Pingree spent countless hours in committee rooms with industry lobbyists who tried to argue the weakness of the science against flame retardants and the power of the chemicals in protecting children from burns.

"There were a lot of ads. They tried to tell people that us legislators would burn their house down," said Pingree. In fact, the industry-sponsored television ad concluded with, "Tell your state legislators, 'Don't play with fire, keep Maine families safe."

For her part, Pingree had many fire professionals on her side, including the firefighter's union and the state's fire chief, and her bill prevailed.

"But industry lobbyists did even worse things in other states," she noted. A report last year found that the chemical industry spent more than $23 million just on lobbying officials in California over the past five years.

Washington State Senator Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), a co-signer on Monday's letter to the ACC, would also count her state among the number where the chemical lobby has been at work. "When they come in, they come in with a lot of money," she said of the flame retardant industry lobbyists.

"It's a coordinated effort, and it was successful in Washington state this last year," Nelson said, referring to the recent defeat of her proposal to ban chlorinated Tris, one of the most commonly used flame retardants since the ban of PBDE. Research suggests, however, it may be just as harmful as its chemical cousin.

When Congress banned PCBs in the 1970s, the chemical industry began employing PBDE as an alternative flame retardant in furniture and other products. When PBDE was found to be equally harmful, the industry moved on to chlorinated Tris, which has been recently declared a carcinogen by a California state science panel.

Nelson added that lobbyists have used the same talking points for chlorinated Tris as they had previously for PBDE. But now a compelling new argument has been added to the industry's arsenal: a Seattle-area burn doctor named Dr. David Heimbach, hired by the Citizens for Fire Safety. Heimbach was profiled in the first part of the Tribune's series and reportedly fabricated stories of a baby dying in a house fire to justify the use of flame retardants. "He was testifying here and elsewhere, undermining our efforts," said Nelson.

As for the ACC's response to the legislators' letter, in which they try to distance themselves from such lobbying efforts, Nelson suggested that the council is "parsing their words."

"They said they do not advocate for Citizens for Fire Safety. But they were down here heavily lobbying right alongside Citizens for Fire Safety," she said.

Nelson said she hopes that increased attention to the risks posed by industrial chemicals, and a greater awareness of industry's tactics to convince people otherwise, will result in a different outcome when she reintroduces her bill to stop the use of chlorinated Tris in Washington state. She hopes the same momentum will also push the passage of national legislation, such as the Safe Chemicals Act, which currently awaits a Senate vote.

Beyond just banning chlorinated Tris, the senator also plans to include a requirement in her bill that any alternative chemicals be fully tested for toxicities.

"If we can stop just substituting one chemical with another cancer-causing agent," she said, "then I think we can get off this toxic treadmill."