Fanning the Flames of Fear: Tobacco Science in the Flame Retardant Industry

Tom Lent | May 11, 2012 | Policies

It worked well to delay tobacco legislation for decades. Why not for the chemical industry as well? The makers of halogenated flame retardant chemicals are turning to the same techniques and even some of the same experts that effectively postponed tobacco regulation. A Chicago Tribune investigative series this week exposes in shocking detail how the industry is using manipulated science and outright lies to throw uncertainty into the debate about the use of these toxic chemicals in furniture, insulation, electronics, baby gear and other building materials and consumer products.

These are potent hazardous chemicals. Hexabromocyclododecane or HBCDD, used widely in foam insulation, is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxicant targeted for elimination in the EU under REACH and by the US EPA for action due to the damage it does to human developmental and reproductive systems as well as its aquatic toxicity and its widespread presence in biomonitoring studies of humans, especially fetuses and young children.

The litany of deceptive techniques uncovered by Trib that the industry is using is sobering. A burn doctor tells stories in a California state senate about babies burned in fires that never happened. Front groups lobby legislatures posing as firefighters and concerned consumers but actually funded and staffed solely by the industry.  The industry uses a study of eight TV fires to project that 165 million fires in Europe are caused by burning TVs.  Industry experts claim that the majority of the U.S. population has very low, if not zero, exposure, all based on one blood study of just 12 samples from 1988 – five of which showed detectable levels of decaBDE flame retardant – while more recent studies by the CDC and others are showing that these chemicals are now in almost all blood samples studied at levels that are increasing with time.

Despite no proof that these toxic chemicals have provided any meaningful increased safety in fires, the industry tactics have been remarkably effective at scaring legislatures out of passing legislation to protect human health. But a wide range of organizations are working under the Safer Chemicals Health Families coalition not only on the efforts to remove halogenated flame retardants but also to pass broader chemical reform to give the EPA the tools to effectively study and regulate chemicals like these. In the meantime, you can vote with your building material decisions, using the halogenated flame retardant filter in Pharos to screen products for these toxic chemicals.