Skip

Fire Retardant Lobby Caught with Pants on Fire
May 6, 2012 9:22 PM   Subscribe

Fire Retardant Lobby Caught with Pants on Fire. "As evidence of health risks piled up, makers of flame retardants created a phony consumer watchdog that misled lawmakers and the public by stoking the fear of fire." Part one of a Chicago Tribune investigation has just been published, featuring a brilliant use of diff.
posted by honest knave (48 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
tldr version: If you don't want your couch to catch on fire, don't smoke.
posted by benzenedream at 9:37 PM on May 6, 2012


When they get done with this, could someone alert them to the specter of terrorism? Seeing the phrase "The system worked" highlighted in all the colors of the rainbow would make me very very happy.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:40 PM on May 6, 2012


Holy hell. That is some very damning reporting. I hope that some serious repercussions come to Dr. Heimbach if he has been as misleading as he's made out to be- not to mention industry, though it's harder to be hopeful for a Definitive Hellstorm for an industry group.

I also really appreciate the format here. Having the entire investigation laid out in a simple, clean overview page was pleasant. And I appreciated the inline scans of primary sources in the "diff" section- that's great. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
posted by aaronbeekay at 9:40 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


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.


Oh for fuck's sake.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:46 PM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Other government scientists subsequently found that the flame retardants in household furniture don't protect consumers from fire in any meaningful way.

Truth retardants, on the other hand...
posted by unSane at 9:49 PM on May 6, 2012


...are the substances most effectively used by businesses today.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:52 PM on May 6, 2012


Just as a warning: There's horrific stuff in there about a baby who died in a fire. I had to stop reading.

Also, KQED (Bay Area public radio) covered this issue recently. Here.
posted by purpleclover at 10:12 PM on May 6, 2012


don't protect consumers from fire in any meaningful way.

I'm sure Marketing can figure out a way to pitch meaningless protection.
posted by philip-random at 10:13 PM on May 6, 2012


The amount of flame retardants in a typical American home isn't measured in parts per billion or parts per million. It's measured in ounces and pounds.

Isn't that lovely?

These chemicals are ubiquitous not because federal rules demand it. In fact, scientists at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have determined that the flame retardants in household furniture aren't effective, and some pose unnecessary health risks. The test calls for exposing raw foam to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds. The cheapest way to pass the test is to add flame retardants to the foam inside cushions. But couches aren't made of foam alone. In a real fire, the upholstery fabric, typically not treated with flame retardants, burns first, and the flames grow big enough that they overwhelm even fire-retardant foam, scientists at two federal agencies have found.

Absolutely lovely.

Nevertheless, in the decades since that rule went into effect, lawyers have regularly argued that their burn-victim clients would have been spared if only their sofas had been made with California foam. Faced with the specter of these lawsuits — and the logistical challenge of producing separate products just for California — many manufacturers began using flame retardant foam across their product lines.

So just as Texas controls what goes into school textbooks across the States (hint: not too much evolution!), California controls what goes into furniture -- just about everywhere in North America?
posted by maudlin at 10:20 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Faced with the specter of these lawsuits — and the logistical challenge of producing separate products just for California — many manufacturers began using flame retardant foam across their product lines.

And any of them that didn't would have been denounced as filthy capitalist greedheads, because if a regulation saves only one life, then it should be adopted everywhere, cost what it may.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:40 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great article, but holy shit that pun-density on that index page is reaching critical levels.


Someone should fire the copy-editor.
posted by smoke at 11:04 PM on May 6, 2012


More broadly, this article captures so perfectly why I think lobbying is the single most corrosive force on democracy and contemporary governance today. It should be banned.
posted by smoke at 11:19 PM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]



But couches aren't made of foam alone. In a real fire, the upholstery fabric, typically not treated with flame retardants, burns first, and the flames grow big enough that they overwhelm even fire-retardant foam, scientists at two federal agencies have found.


Argh, testable repeatable experiments.

If only, if only there was a magic box, containing moving pictures of talking heads, relentlessy talking about the acted sex life of strangers, or strangers acting sex, or claiming to be fair and balanced, fearmongering the next rapture of 2012, aliens ufos and invisible omniscient bipolar beings! If only!

Or a way to lead congress people by the nose with 3000 pages of documents, to be read in one night, written by wannabe lawyers, sprinkled with money for charitable purposes.

If only!
posted by elpapacito at 11:22 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Heimbach] 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."
People can rationalise doing a lot of bad things. Maybe the executives of the chemical manufacturers really believe that their research is right, and all evidence to the contrary is just the work of aggrieved, irrational parties seeking to discredit them. Maybe they know their research is bogus, but don’t care – they see themselves as fulfilling a duty to earn maximum return for the shareholders because that is how capitalism works, and if the product didn’t work as advertised then that is just breaking a few eggs in making the omelette of a market democracy.

What I wonder about is how someone says the above with a straight face (presuming all quotes are correct and not taken out of context). “Sure, I will say all kinds of bullshit in support of the industry when I’m not under oath but ’I'm a well-meaning guy... I'm not in the pocket of industry’." Even if Heimbach is just doing it for the money, then I am puzzled as to how he is not smart enough to realise that admitting that to a reporter will harm his ability to make more money this way.
posted by kithrater at 11:22 PM on May 6, 2012


Like, dude, it's not like I am under oath!
posted by elpapacito at 11:24 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this post. One of my biggest pieces of advice for new parents is to make sure the baby's mattress and clothes don't have flame retardants. Most do.

I'm sure you're not surprised most people look at me like I'm crazy.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:40 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


This jumped out at me: "And I am not in the pocket of anybody that makes a specific flame retardant...".

The word 'specific' in that sentence changes the meaning of it when you parse carefully. (ie: "I'm in the pocket of a lot of companies that make many different flame retardants...").

He would have come out better looking if he would have disclosed exactly how much money he has been 'paid for his time' during his years of fraudulent testimony, assuming that number would have looked small compared to his position at the hospital.

I assume at this point he isn't worried about being prosecuted for fraud (or sued or any other legal or financial consequence), I assume he's concerned about his personal and professional reputation. I wish he had such concerns when giving testimony that apparently have allowed (and encouraged) dangerous chemicals to be inserted into millions homes.

Now I can only hope that this investigative journalism does what good journalism actually does when it works: impact public policy to positively benefit the health and well-being of the public.
posted by el io at 11:56 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also; trying to make fire 'safe' is a futile thing; avoiding fires and educating folks on how to do so will decrease fire burn victims.
posted by el io at 12:00 AM on May 7, 2012


One of my biggest pieces of advice for new parents is to make sure the baby's mattress and clothes don't have flame retardants.

Is there any evidence this is better for the baby (other than handwavey "less exposure to chemicals is obviously better")?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:04 AM on May 7, 2012


I used to be shocked when I found out that the people that were supposed to keep people safe were deliberately failing.
But then I saw The Wire; now I am shocked when they do keep people safe.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 1:32 AM on May 7, 2012


I don't want to turn this into a political issue: but can I point out that's it's stuff like this that makes right-wingers like me skeptical of government regulation? The danger of regulatory capture can be mitigated by having a natural inclination to avoid regulation where possible. Right-wingers are pro-business, generally, but not pro-particular-businesses - the shifty capitalists are only out to make money, which is why you should avoid regulating the market in which they compete - or you'll end up giving the market to some well-connected set of companies with the good lobbyists.

Of course, a better solution is smart lawmakers with the ability to do research and make cool judgements, a media that prefers facts and complexity to human interest and outrage, and an electorate that goes on policy enacted rather than language talked. But that's really hard! A reticence - not inability - to enact regulations is a good easy win.

Just the next time you're thinking everyone opposed to regulation is automatically a frothing libertarian...
posted by alasdair at 3:25 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


And any of them that didn't would have been denounced as filthy capitalist greedheads, because if a regulation saves only one life, then it should be adopted everywhere, cost what it may.

and

I don't want to turn this into a political issue: but can I point out that's it's stuff like this that makes right-wingers like me skeptical of government regulation?

Did either of you two read anything beyond the title of this thread? Here, someone even pasted a helpful passage for you:

Nevertheless, in the decades since that rule went into effect, lawyers have regularly argued that their burn-victim clients would have been spared if only their sofas had been made with California foam. Faced with the specter of these lawsuits — and the logistical challenge of producing separate products just for California — many manufacturers began using flame retardant foam across their product lines.

That would be lawsuits from private citizens, not government regulators -- you're looking for right wing talking points memo #371, "Tort Reform", located on CD 3 of the boxed set. Please stop trying to derail this discussion about the flame retardant industry to talk about your favorite right wing issues.
posted by indubitable at 4:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


The danger of regulatory capture can be mitigated by having a natural inclination to avoid regulation where possible.

This solves the problem in the sense that death cures everything.
posted by unSane at 4:51 AM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, I'm wondering, (other than simple human decency) why doesn't the anti-retardant lobby trot out photos and stories of children that died horribly from cancers caused by ingesting these chemicals? Seems that turnabout is fair play in this case!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:05 AM on May 7, 2012


Here's another helpful passage from the article:

The chemicals are widely used because of an obscure rule adopted by California regulators in 1975.

Regulation is a complex issue. It is reasonable to be skeptical of regulation and worry about regulatory capture. This is an example that illustrates this point.
posted by alasdair at 6:21 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The chemicals put in your couch to make it burn slower in a fire can actually harm you. So can sitting on a slowly burning couch. My couch never catches on fire, could I get a chemical free one, please?
posted by myselfasme at 6:26 AM on May 7, 2012


A reticence - not inability - to enact regulations is a good easy win.

A reticence relative to what, though? The importance of the regulation? Well look, this here is a regulation to stop people from burning to death in their homes, by filling their couches with happy anti-fire foam. Who is going to oppose that important law?

Corruption is the problem. Regulatory capture is a symptom
posted by crayz at 6:33 AM on May 7, 2012


At least 15 - 20 years ago I was reading research connecting PBDEs to disease, in particular thyroid disease, which I have. There was a lot written then linking it to breast cancer and endocrine illnesses. I was shocked then how much PBDEs is in our homes. It’s in your bed sheets, mattress, clothing, curtains, carpets... your keyboard!. We ingest it daily.
posted by what's her name at 6:41 AM on May 7, 2012


So, I'm wondering, (other than simple human decency) why doesn't the anti-retardant lobby trot out photos and stories of children that died horribly from cancers caused by ingesting these chemicals?

Could you maybe help me out by identifying who are the anti-retardant lobbyists, and who is funding them?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:41 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Could you maybe help me out by identifying who are the anti-retardant lobbyists, and who is funding them?

So nobody came to testify against these regulations? Not even Matt Vinci, President of Professional Firefighters of Vermont? No wonder they passed then.

Of course there is an anti-retardant lobby. Here from the article:

"At the same time, Citizens for Fire Safety has portrayed its opposition as misguided, wealthy environmentalists. But its opponents include a diverse group of public health advocates as well as firefighters who are alarmed by studies showing some flame retardants can make smoke from fires even more toxic."

So, who funds them? Public health advocacy organizations for the most part I'd suppose in addition to professional firefighter organizations, no?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:02 AM on May 7, 2012


Could you maybe help me out by identifying who are the anti-retardant lobbyists, and who is funding them?

Here's some materials published by Public Citizen for example. It took me going to their site and searching "retardant" to find.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:06 AM on May 7, 2012


So, firefighter advocates and citizen advocates are the opposite equivalents of industry-paid lobbyists?

Thanks for the help.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:10 AM on May 7, 2012


No, you asked who the anti-retardant lobbyists were and who funds them. The ones cited in this article happen to be firefighter organizations and consumer advocates. "Lobbyist" does not mean corporate tool nor does it mean paid public relations firm, though it can.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:17 AM on May 7, 2012


This story goes to show that damage to the common good doesn't come only from corporate mercenaries corrupting the scientific process, but also from the crusading lawyer types.

FIrst thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers..
posted by ocschwar at 7:25 AM on May 7, 2012


Now that you know why he was angry, Amar'e Stoudemire doesn't look so stupid, does he?
posted by yerfatma at 7:35 AM on May 7, 2012


Is there any evidence this is better for the baby (other than handwavey "less exposure to chemicals is obviously better")?

If watching House has taught me anything, it's that this is always the answer.

/spoiler: it's not Lupus
posted by Blue_Villain at 7:35 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


20 years ago as part of my job I tested some flame retardants and found that the 2 (?) I tested did absolutely nothing to delay the ignition and burning up of two samples of foam-backed plush fabric from child car seats.

The testing was mostly unscientific, but there was no difference at all in combustibility, regardless of what concentration of flame retardant I used. Happily most children don't smoke cigarettes in the car.

And watching House has told me that steroids are always the answer. Unless the illness is fungal, in which case you've just killed the patient, and antifungals in retrospect were the answer.
posted by etherist at 8:25 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


And any of them that didn't would have been denounced as filthy capitalist greedheads, because if a regulation saves only one life, then it should be adopted everywhere, cost what it may.

In which fantasy world do you live? It's difficult as hell to get new regulations passed, especially with the current Congress and political atmosphere. It has always been difficult, because new regulations are fought tooth and nail by those who will lose money in the short term. And even after they are passed, they will continue to fight to repeat them.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:37 AM on May 7, 2012


Or even to repeal them. (What a ditz!)
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:37 AM on May 7, 2012


This is really in-depth reporting. It's nice to see there are still some journalists that bother to check facts and seek truth. I'd like to see some more information on the actual fire retardants being used and their environmental effects, though.

This all reminds me of the new Fire Safe Cigarettes Standards Compliant cigarettes, which are mandated nationally at this point. Although a study that was commissioned showed that "nicotine level was 1.8% lower, tar level 3% higher," [...] "Five compounds (all being polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) had significantly higher levels, but the magnitude of difference was small (4.3%-13.91%)." they decided that "There is no evidence that small increases in one or more toxins affect the already highly toxic nature of cigarette smoke. However, the small sample (four sub brands out of 767 certified brands) and the high variability across these brands warrant viewing these results as preliminary and deserving of further research." Research which I have not yet seen performed, and yet they still feel that it's necessary to mandate this for all cigarette manufacturers, while not requiring them to disclose the exact methods that they use for any individual cigarette brand or requiring individual testing for each brand. It seems like quite the gamble to make when "don't smoke inside when you're tired or intoxicated" would be pretty effective. As someone who rolls their own, I can also say that hand-rolled cigarettes will burn out on their own more readily than pre-FSC manufactured cigarettes.
posted by nTeleKy at 11:07 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


In which fantasy world do you live? It's difficult as hell to get new regulations passed, especially with the current Congress and political atmosphere. It has always been difficult, because new regulations are fought tooth and nail by those who will lose money in the short term. And even after they are passed, they will continue to fight to repeat them.

You missed the point. In this case, it would have been entirely rational to oppose regulations, such as those passed in California, requiring the use of fire retardant materials in furniture on both economic and public safety grounds. But anyone voicing opposition to such regulations would have been denounced here on MeFi as indifferent to consumer safety up until this report about the fire retardant lobby came out. A lot of people on the left assume that regulation is always inherently good, just like a lot of people on the right assume it's always inherently bad.

What I'm saying is that the costs should be more carefully weighed against the benefits.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:40 PM on May 7, 2012


What I'm saying is that the costs should be more carefully weighed against the benefits.

Nice use of the passive tense there. How could that actually be achieved?
posted by unSane at 4:53 PM on May 7, 2012


I repeat:

And any of them that didn't would have been denounced as filthy capitalist greedheads, because if a regulation saves only one life, then it should be adopted everywhere, cost what it may.

What fantasy world do you live in?
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:33 PM on May 7, 2012


On how to weigh the cost against the benefits, I'm actually in favor of a little more regulatory authority and a little less public involvement and consultation. To my mind we have too much democracy in California, with people being able to vote on all sorts of minutiae via ballot propositions and impact regulatory matters via the public hearing process. Many people agitate or vote on topics which they know little about, and the percentage of people who actually read through the text of the ballot propositions they vote on is likely in the single digits. I'd like to see regulators with somewhat more unilateral authority but also less legal immunity, and I think the pocourts should be the last refuge for product liability disputes, rather than the first. Some countries offer limited but virtually automatic compensation for accidents, including ones involving product liability. This protects consumers' interests, and though it shields manufacturers from large compensation payouts, it correspondingly empowers regulators, whose strict authority is preferable to the uncertainty of litigation.

Mental Wimp, why don't you try actually stating your point. My remarks above are directed at the people who reflexively assume business is evil and that all regulation is good. If I had posted here (before this report about fire retardant companies) and said 'fire retardant regulations are a waste of time and an unecessary cost upon the furniture business,' a majority of Metafilter readers would have denounced me as a libertarian tool and you know it.
posted by anigbrowl at 6:15 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My remarks above are directed at the people who reflexively assume business is evil and that all regulation is good.

Yes, exactly. The strawman in your mind. Do actually know anyone like this other than the boogiemen that the libertarians imagine?
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:18 PM on May 7, 2012


The belief that businesses will do what it takes to make a profit is not restricted to one side of the political sphere. Just because the regulatory system has apparently failed in this case doesn't mean "fire retardant regulations are a waste of time and an unecessary cost upon the furniture business" is necessarily true. Everyone can agree that ineffective regulations are a waste of time and an unecessary cost, but I would argue the best solution is to change the ineffective part, not the regulation part.
posted by kithrater at 12:04 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I replied to this yesterday but apparently my browser ate it.

The strawman in your mind. Do actually know anyone like this other than the boogiemen that the libertarians imagine?

This attitude is widespread on MeFi. I'm not opposed to regulation, but often criticism of poor regulations is rebutted with an argument for the necessity of regulation in general. There's frequently a disconnect between worthy ends and the means employed in their pursuit.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:15 AM on May 9, 2012


Please give an example of someone who thinks all businesses are evil and all regulations are bad. Also note that this was pushed by a business, and the physician was their tool.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:50 PM on May 9, 2012


« Older 7 Days in Tokyo   |   Barry Manilow's Television Specials Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post