Fire retardants and mistrust of scientific data

8 08 2012

You may have read the series published by the Chicago Tribune which began on May 7, “Playing With Fire”, in which they expose the history of fire retardants which are used in furniture in the United States. The Tribune found that:

  • Chemicals that are used in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs to slow fire do not work.
  • Some fire retardant materials used over the years pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A lot of household furniture is chock full of these chemicals. They escape from the furniture and settle in dust. That’s particularly dangerous for toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths.

According to an editorial which was published in the Tribune on May 11, “you have been sold a false sense of security about the risk of your furniture burning, and you’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals you didn’t know about. If you’re not angry, you ought to be”.

How were U.S. consumers and manufacturers sold on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals?

According to the series:

  • It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry[1].  A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.  The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals  and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.  An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”  But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.
  • A prominent burn doctor’s misleading testimony was part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals. The chemical industry “has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact,” the authors wrote.  To read about this, click here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks

As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, said: It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.  To read his editorial, click here.

What I find intriguing about this expose is how the chemical lobby was able to pull this off.  We have known the science behind fire retardants for many years, just as we know the science behind global climate change.  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication , in conjunction with the Gallup Group, found that although most Americans (66%) now believe  climate change is happening,  only 42% believe that it is caused by human activities.[2]  Will scholars a thousand years from now wonder why, after scientists had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have published a book, Merchants of Doubt, that explores what they say is the widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus by the American public.[3]  They probe the history of organized campaigns, (similar to the one done by the three fire retardant manufacturers in the Playing with Fire series), to create public doubt and confusion about science.

In a review of the book which appeared in American Scientist, Robert Proctor says that the authors demonstrate “how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.”

The story, he says, helps explain why  “these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease”.  Rachael Carson is now, in this revisionist world,  blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT.

But what is at the bottom of all this is the definition of the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute.  Robert Proctor says the doubt mongers  “are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.”


[2] “Climate Change in the American Mind”, May 15, 2012, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,   MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,  Bloomsbury Press, 2010.


Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: