Exposed: The chemical industry's fake grass-roots lobbying for fire retardants

For years, chemical companies hid their lobbying behind a fake citizens group

Grant D. Gillham stepped to the microphone in a California State Senate hearing chamber on April 13 and spoke out in favor of a bill mandating the labeling of children's products containing flame retardant chemicals. 

What made Gillham's appearance notable was that for years, he had been in charge of a chemical industry effort to kill such bills -- in fact, one that had targeted numerous measures in Sacramento.

"Over a five-year period of time we killed 58 of 60 bills like this throughout the country," he said. But now, he said, "I don't believe the industry has the science to support their claims that these products are safe and that they work."

That moment may have been the final coda to the credibility of Citizens for Fire Safety, the ostensibly grass-roots organization Gillham had headed.

Set up in 2007 by the chemical industry to lobby against flame-retardant regulations, the group described 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."

A 2012 investigation by The Times' sister newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and also published by The Times, exposed Citizens for Fire Safety's industry pedigree as the offspring of three flame-retardant manufacturers. 

Now a new report by the Center for Public Integrity adds to the record with evidence that Citizens for Fire Safety worked intimately with the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's lobbying arm, which has always disavowed any affiliation with Citizens for Fire Safety. "Neither ACC staff nor resources were used to support activities undertaken by the group," its chief executive, Cal Dooley, told a Maine legislator in 2012, according to a letter cited in the expose

The CPI's report sheds new light on a lobbying and public information campaign waged for years by the chemical industry to defeat regulations on retardants. It shows how a big industry can cloak its lobbying power as grass-roots citizen activism. 

The chemicals at issue have been infused into bedding, upholstery and other household goods for decades on the presumption that they can prevent house fires.

But scientific evidence suggests that they're easily absorbed through the skin and work their way into breathable household dust as treated fabrics deteriorate; according to one study, 97% of Americans have traces of the compounds in their blood. Laboratory studies suggest they're associated with cancer, thyroid and neurological problems, and other health effects. There are also doubts about their efficacy in preventing fires.

The ACC's membership is a Who's Who of the global chemical industry, including Chevron, Dow Chemical, DuPont and the three firms directly involved in starting Citizens for Fire Safety -- Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL, or Israel Chemicals Ltd.

The ACC says its role is overstated by the CPI investigation. "We disagree with the characterization of the relationship in the CPI story," Anne Kolton, the council's spokeswoman, told me Friday. "While we were certainly aware of one another, there was not any support or coordination between the groups."

But as Gillham disclosed in a letter last month to California State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), chairman of the Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development, Citizens for Fire Safety was all but founded in the ACC's Sacramento office at a meeting in August 2007. The meeting launched what he called "a six-year relationship with the American Chemistry Council," which exercised "oversight" of his "grass-roots public relations campaign" to defeat legislation banning chemical flame retardants.

When Gillham, a veteran tobacco lobbyist, urged his employers to revisit their scientific data on safety and efficacy in the aftermath of the 2012 Tribune investigation, he says, he was fired. 

By then the "citizens" group had made its mark. "Over the past eight years, we had five different bills [to regulate retardants] and they opposed every one," says Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).

The organization spent lavishly across the country and in California. Gillham told CPI that it spent $22 million on lobbying and advertising to defeat a California measure in 2007. California lobbying records show it paid more than $4 million to Sacramento lobbyists from 2007 through 2012.

The industry's campaign included heart-wrenching testimony from a prominent burn specialist, Dr. David Heimbach of Seattle, who presented stories of children burned and killed in fires preventable by flame retardants. The Tribune established that those stories were fabricated.

But they met the goal of killing anti-retardant regulations. "There was no hope to pass a bill when you saw pictures of burned babies," says Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group and a long-term campaigner for stricter regulations on the chemicals. "But there were no such babies."

Heimbach later gave up his medical license under the threat of disciplinary proceedings in Washington.

The California legislature finally passed a measure in 2014 mandating warning labels on upholstered furniture with flame retardants. The state fire code also has been amended to remove a mandate that household fabrics be treated with the chemicals. The measure on which Gillham spoke last month, also sponsored by Leno, would add labeling requirements to treated infant and child products.

Meanwhile, the industry is training its firepower on Capitol Hill, where it is pushing legislation to shift regulation of fire retardants to the federal government. Cook of EWG says the effect would be to force states to accept looser federal rules. "The goal of the sponsors is clearly to preempt state regulation," he says.

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