Burn Baby Burn

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Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles that uncovered a devious relationship between the tobacco and chemical industries. It’s hard not to be outraged – no matter how cynical you might be – by the tactics used by the chemical companies that made flame retardant products to convince the American public that furniture needed to be treated with chemicals to protect life and property in the event of household fires. This 4-part series, titled “Playing with Fire,” makes clear the calculated efforts of this segment of the chemical industry to dupe the American public.

The first article in the series lays the background to this extraordinary expose. “These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than half a decade campaigning for their cause.”

The source of the information used in this series was internal memos, speeches, strategic plans, correspondence and other materials among more than 13 million documents made public after the tobacco companies settled lawsuits related to health claims brought by victims. These documents also reveal the influential role that Big Tobacco played in the extensive use of toxic chemicals in American furniture.

According to the Tribune series, this relationship began when Big Tobacco came under attack when smoldering cigarettes sparked fires leading to deaths (see Part 2 in the series). One choice facing the tobacco companies was to make a fire-safe cigarette that was less likely to start a fire. But the industry insisted that they couldn’t make a fire resistant cigarette that would still attract smokers. Instead, they shifted attention to the furniture (ands away from cigarettes) and promoted fame retardant couches and chairs. To achieve this goal, Big Tobacco poured millions of dollars into an “aggressive and cunning campaign to ‘neutralize’ firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco’s cause as their own.”

Part 3, “Distorting Science,” describes how the makers of flame retardant chemicals manipulated research findings to promote their products and down play health risks. The article tells us that “the industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry funded reports as rigorous science.” There was also a prominent burn doctor speaking in support of flame retardants as part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals.

Lastly, Part 4 describes the pathetic efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, which allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks.

This series makes it clear that fire retardant materials used over the years are not effective and some pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. Lots of household furniture is full of these chemicals. Worse, they escape from the furniture and settle in dust that is particularly dangerous for infants who crawl and play on the floor constantly putting things in their mouths.

If ever you had doubts about the lengths that big business will go to deceive and “pitch” the public, including politicians and bureaucrats, look no further than this series. It‘s an education in corporate behavior gone awry.

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By Leanna Theam. I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college