Public Health Advocates Find Flame Retardant Fight Follows Familiar Formula

Excerpt from Huff Post Green February 10, 2014:

When chemical companies hired Grant Gillham in 2007 to manage a campaign in defense of flame retardants in couches and other consumer goods, Gillham recalled being “assured that the scientific information they had supporting the safety and effectiveness of their products was valid.” The companies’ claim turned out to be a “big lie,” Gillham, a corporate affairs consultant who has also worked for the tobacco industry, told The Huffington Post.

Flame retardant makers, according to Gillham and other advocates and experts, are following a playbook first drafted by lead paint manufacturers in the early 20th century, revised and expanded by Big Tobacco in subsequent decades, and chock full of legal and public relations tactics designed to preserve profitability, with little regard for public health. All three industries are currently embroiled in ongoing legal battles tied to health concerns. Sources told HuffPost that they recognize many of the classic moves, from deception to denial to delays.

“It’s déjà vu all over again, and again,” said Steven Gilbert, director of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders and affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

Chemtura, a leading manufacturer of flame retardants, filed a lawsuit in mid-January seeking to overturn California’s newly enacted fire safety regulations. The revision of Technical Bulletin 117 dissolves a decades-old state requirement — and de facto U.S. standard — that flame retardants be included in upholstered furniture. The change was spurred by mounting evidence of health problems associated with exposure to the chemicals, as well as an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that found the additives may offer no meaningful fire protection.

The company, however, continues to stand by its product.

“California’s revised, weakened fire safety standard could tragically lead to more fires and more injuries, deaths and property damage nationwide,” John Gustavsen, a spokesperson for Chemtura, told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “Flame retardants are extensively tested with regulatory oversight and are safe and effective for their intended use.”

“Like climate change,” Gilbert countered, “the data against flame retardants is overwhelming.”

It took several decades of accumulated data before the harms from lead and tobacco became widely recognized. Both industries are now attempting to fend off court-ordered penalties for past behavior, including hiding known health risks.

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