Makers of flame retardants cut ties with industry front group

by Michael Hawthorne and Sam Roe, Chicago Tribune

The world’s major manufacturers of flame retardants officially cut ties Friday with an industry-funded front group that waged a deceptive campaign to fuel demand for the chemicals in household furniture, electronics, baby products and other goods.

Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp. and ICL Industrial Products said in a statement that the companies have severed their relationships with the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, a group they founded, funded and directed. The companies will shift their outside lobbying and advocacy efforts to the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s chief trade group.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the front group has been formally disbanded, though its website was taken down Friday. The three companies declined to comment beyond a statement posted on their corporate websites.

"We will focus on educating policymakers and stakeholders about the contributions of flame retardants to fire safety, and the science that supports flame retardant chemistries as an important tool to protect lives and property by reducing the flammability of the products around us,” the statement said.

The Tribune reported last month that the chemical manufacturers were reconsidering their involvement with Citizens for Fire Safety in response to the newspaper’s "Playing With Fire" investigation, which documented the front group’s role in a decades-long effort by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote the use of flame retardants.

Those efforts have helped load American homes with toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.

Citizens for Fire Safety played an active role in states where legislators have proposed banning certain flame retardants. Its tactics included distributing videos featuring ominous music, footage of burning houses and narrators warning that restrictions on the chemicals would endanger children.

The group also sponsored witnesses who testified before state legislators in favor of flame retardants. Among them was a now-retired surgery professor at the University of Washington who told lawmakers stories about burned babies, though the Tribune investigation found that the infants as he described them did not exist.

Since the newspaper’s series was published in May, Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL have faced blistering criticism from federal and state lawmakers who called the tactics of Citizens for Fire Safety unethical. It became increasingly apparent that the group’s future was in doubt after several U.S. senators grilled representatives of the chemical companies at a July hearing.

"If there is any truth to the allegations, we will take decisive, appropriate action," Marshall Moore, director of technology, advocacy and marketing for Chemtura, wrote in a letter to the Tribune after the Senate hearing.

Seth Jacobson, who had been the spokesman for Citizens for Fire Safety, said Friday that he no longer represents the group. The organization’s executive director, Grant Gillham, did not return telephone calls.

The group had billed itself as "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety." In response to the Tribune series, the group altered its website to clarify that it is a trade association.

Its board of directors was composed of executives from Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL, which contributed about $17 million to the group from 2008 to 2010, most of which was spent on lobbying and political expenses, according to federal tax records.

Citizens for Fire Safety was active in the California Legislature as recently as June, when a lobbyist for the group testified that flame-retardant furniture saves lives. At issue was the state’s flammability standard for residential furniture, which manufacturers typically meet by adding chemicals to foam cushions. Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to replace the standard with one that could be met without the use of chemicals.

Lobbying for the three chemical manufacturers now will be handled by the American Chemistry Council, which said in a statement that it "will continue to communicate the science that addresses the effectiveness and safe use of flame retardants."

The trade group, along with Citizens for Fire Safety, has been accused of distorting science to build support among policymakers for greater use of the chemicals. Flame retardants added to furniture cushions actually provide no meaningful protection from household fires, according to federal researchers and independent scientists.

Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental and health groups, called Friday’s announcement "purely cosmetic."

The real problem, Igrejas said, is that the makers of flame retardants have repeatedly shown a "lack of scientific integrity and a disregard for public health." Government and industry need to confront this behavior, he said. Otherwise, he feared the "same companies will plot the same deceptive campaigns."