Dr. David Heimbach knows how to tell a story.
Before California lawmakers last year, the noted burn surgeon drew gasps from the crowd as he described a 7-week-old baby girl who was burned in a fire started by a candle while she lay on a pillow that lacked flame retardant chemicals.
“Now this is a tiny little person, no bigger than my Italian greyhound at home,” said Heimbach, gesturing to approximate the baby’s size. “Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital.”
Heimbach’s passionate testimony about the baby’s death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty.
But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn’t true.
Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn’t exist.
Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.
Heimbach is not just a prominent burn doctor. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants.
His testimony is part of a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents.
These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public’s fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause.
Today, scientists know that some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in dust. That’s why toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.
Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven’t declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.
People might be willing to accept the health risks if the flame retardants packed into sofas and easy chairs worked as promised. But they don’t.
The chemical industry often points to a government study from the 1980s as proof that flame retardants save lives. But the study’s lead author, Vytenis Babrauskas, said in an interview that the industry has grossly distorted his findings and that the amount of retardants used in household furniture doesn’t work.
“The fire just laughs at it,” he said.
Other government scientists subsequently found that the flame retardants in household furniture don’t protect consumers from fire in any meaningful way.
TheU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market and into American homes without thoroughly assessing the health risks. The EPA even promoted one chemical mixture as a safe, eco-friendly flame retardant despite grave concerns from its own scientists about potential hazards to humans and wildlife.
Since the 1970s manufacturers have repeatedly withdrawn flame retardants amid health concerns. Some have been banned by a United Nations treaty that seeks to eliminate the worst chemicals in the world.
Chemtura Corp. andAlbemarle Corp., the two biggest U.S. manufacturers of flame retardants, say their products are safe and effective, arguing that they have been extensively evaluated by government agencies in the U.S. and in Europe.
“Flame retardants provide an essential tool to enable manufacturers of products to meet the fire safety codes and standards necessary to protect life and property in a modern world,” John Gustavsen, a Chemtura spokesman, said in a written statement.
His company, Gustavsen said, strongly disagrees with the main findings ofthe Chicago Tribune’sinvestigation.
Heimbach, the burn doctor, has regularly supported the industry’s position that flame retardants save lives. But he now acknowledges the stories he told lawmakers about victims were not always factual.
He told the Tribune his testimony in California was “an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.”
Heimbach, a retired Seattle doctor and former president of the American Burn Assn., also said his anecdotes were not about different children but about the same infant. But records and interviews show that the baby Heimbach said he had in mind when testifying didn’t die as he described and that flame retardants were not a factor.
After the Tribune confronted chemical executives with Heimbach’s questionable testimony, he offered, through his lawyer, another explanation for why his stories didn’t add up: He intentionally changed the facts to protect patient privacy.
Yet the most crucial parts of his testimony — the cause of the fire and the lack of flame retardants — had nothing to do with privacy. Instead, they served to bolster the industry’s argument that chemical retardants save lives.
In the last quarter-century, worldwide demand for flame retardants has skyrocketed to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009 from 526 million pounds in 1983, according to market research from The Freedonia Group, which projects demand will reach 4.4 billion pounds by 2014.
As evidence of the health risks associated with these chemicals piled up, the industry mounted a misleading campaign to fuel demand.
There is no better example of these deceptive tactics than the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, the industry front group that sponsored Heimbach and his vivid testimony about burned babies.
Citizens for Fire Safety describes itself as a group of people with altruistic intentions: “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.”
Heimbach summoned that image when he told lawmakers that the organization was “made up of many people like me who have no particular interest in the chemical companies: numerous fire departments, numerous firefighters and many, many burn docs.”
But public records demonstrate that Citizens for Fire Safety actually is a trade association for chemical companies. Its executive director, Grant Gillham, honed his political skills advising tobacco executives. And the group’s efforts to influence fire-safety policies are guided by a mission to “promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry,” tax records show.
Its only sources of funding — about $17 million between 2008 and 2010 — are “membership dues and assessments” and the interest that money earns.
The group has only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, according to records the organization filed with California lobbying regulators. Those three companies are the largest manufacturers of flame retardants and together control 40% of the world market for these chemicals, according to the Cleveland-based Freedonia Group.
Citizens for Fire Safety has spent its money primarily on lobbying and political expenses, tax records show. Since federal law makes it nearly impossible for the EPA to ban toxic chemicals and Congress rarely steps in, state legislatures from Alaska to Vermont have become the sites of intense battles over flame retardants.
Many of the witnesses supporting flame retardants at these hearings were either paid directly by Citizens for Fire Safety or were members of groups that benefited financially from Citizens for Fire Safety’s donations, according to tax documents and other records.
Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products declined to answer specific questions about the group.
Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne contributed to this report.