The Chicago Tribune lights up the flame-retardant industry

An outstanding investigation show how chemical companies preserve a toxic cash cow

A tremendous Chicago Tribune investigation into flame-retardant chemical manufacturers shows how they push their poisons on an unsuspecting public despite repeated findings that their products do nothing to prevent or delay fires. It’s a sordid tale of powerful corporations, paid shills, and legislative and regulatory impotence—one of the best examples I’ve seen of how private special interests dominate the public interest.

The Trib’s series is a devastating piece of muckraking that shows how the chemical industry misleads lawmakers and the public to protect a cash cow.

This is how newspaper journalism ought to be done. The paper hits the chemical industry and the folks on its payroll hard, comes to a clear conclusion, and uses pointed language that amplifies the impact.

The Tribune calls the chemical industry’s push “a decades-long campaign of deception” that “manipulated scientific findings” with “flaws so basic they violate central tenets of science,” and created a “phony consumer watchdog,” a “front” that has “misrepresented itself.” It doesn’t futz around with he said/she said. It just out and out says that flame retardant in household products “doesn’t work.” The paper calls it like it sees it and makes a convincing case that it has it right.

The entire series is fantastic, but let’s focus on one piece, about how a prominent burn surgeon has pulled heartstrings for the industry with stories of burned children who could have been saved if their furniture had contained flame retardants. The Tribune shows that the surgeon’s stories are fabricated and false. Here’s the lede:

Dr. David Heimbach knows how to tell a story.

Boy, does he. The Trib tell us five paragraphs in flatly that one anecdote in particular “wasn’t true”—that critical elements of the story, and others Heimbach told in similar testimony, were invented.

Heimbach was testifying (though not under oath, as the doctor explains in his fumbling attempts to excuse his falsehoods) for an astroturf group called Citizens for Fire Safety. It goes to show that if a group calls itself “Citizens for” something these days, it’s almost certainly a fake grassroots organization whose real purpose is to lobby and propagandize for powerful interests. The paper points out the similarities (and connections) between this campaign of deception and Big Tobacco’s decades-long effort to claim its deadly products were safe.

The Trib reports that these flame retardants are everywhere—stuffed into couches and pillow and mattresses by the pound, despite scientific evidence that they can cause a range of health problems, including cancer, mental problems, and infertility.

A critical part of the problem here is that our laws tie make it extremely difficult for regulators to police the chemicals industry. This is from another story in the series, on the law and how the EPA let a toxic fire retardant replace another toxic fire retardant:

Unlike Europe, where companies generally are required to prove the safety of their chemicals before use, U.S. law requires manufacturers to submit safety data only if they have it. Most don’t, records show, which forces the EPA to predict whether chemicals will pose health problems by using computer models that the agency admits can fail to identify adverse effects.

The EPA can require studies of new chemicals that it anticipates could affect people’s health — as it did with Firemaster 550 — but this step is rare, and the research doesn’t need to be completed before the chemicals are sold.

To ban a chemical already on the market, the EPA must prove that it poses an “unreasonable risk.” Federal courts have established such a narrow definition of “unreasonable” that the government couldn’t even ban asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen that has killed thousands of people who suffered devastating lung diseases.

This is one of those series that is so damn good and so infuriating, you’d like to think we’d wake up tomorrow and everything has changed. The EPA would have banned the chemicals in question, the surgeon would have been hauled in for misleading testimony, the front organization would have been disbanded, the chemical companies responsible would have gone broke, and the law would have been changed to require remaining chemical companies actually prove their products are safe before selling them.

You’d have to be a hopeless optimist to bet that real change will be effected, and if anything does, it will take years. The calcification of the political system is too complete.

But if there’s a piece of journalism that could force it to happen, it’s this one.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,