In the corporate battles for high-stakes public health contracts, a public relations parallel exists between manufacturers of vaccines and flame retardants. Both industries continually push for mandates by leveraging mortal fear into sales. Both insist their products are completely safe, despite compelling research to the contrary – along with uncounted consumers’ reports of adverse medical events such as autism.
Last December HBO’s documentary Toxic Hot Seat detailed the controversy over flame retardant chemicals used in U.S. furniture. The filmmakers assert that corporations “obscure the risks to public health and misrepresent chemical safety data by paying 'experts' to alarm legislators and the public” – and oppose state bills to eliminate toxic flame retardants from home furnishings.
HBO’s film, inspired in part by the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 investigative series “Playing With Fire,” makes the case that profiteering via manufactured fear is skewing public health decision-making. Filmmakers and reporters both noted similarities between the PR tactics of Big Tobacco and flame retardant manufacturers, saying the latter “waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.”
(Note: Age of Autism readers familiar with the Chicago Tribune‘s autism coverage might ask whether its reporters have been pejoratively labeled by critics as “pro-fire.”)
No federal law requires furniture to be flame retardant, but for decades most U.S. manufacturers have adhered to the California flammability standard outlined in Technical Bulletin 117. The document describes flame resistance limits for upholstery fillings such as foams, beads and feathers, when exposed to ignition sources such as a lit cigarette. Flame retardants work by generating reactive or additive compounds that operate alone or as synergists, interfering with combustion, insulating fuel sources, or diluting sources of fuel or oxygen.
Chemical compounds with names like Tris (TCDP) and Firemaster 500 are part of a multi-billion-dollar international industry. According to the American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance, the main uses are in electronics and electrical devices, building and construction materials, furnishings, and transportation (airplanes, trains, automobiles). Tris contains bromine, an element whose Greek name means “stench.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control website says bromine is used as a chlorine alternative in swimming pools, though at certain concentrations it can irritate skin, mucous membranes and tissues.
Research increasingly links flame retardant chemicals to adverse health effects such as “antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.” A Duke University study of children’s blood detected levels of flame retardants in all subjects tested; other research on children links exposure to lowered IQ’s. And a 53-page report by the Environmental Protection Agency states that Tris is neurotoxic, mutates genes, damages DNA and causes chromosomal aberrations in vitro.
Inconvenient truths, indeed. According to the Chicago Tribune, three large chemical companies – Chemtura Corporation, Albemarle and ICL Industrial Products – funneled millions of dollars into a front group called Citizens for Fire Safety used for influencing legislation and consumer purchasing. An investigative reporter discovered that:
- the faux advocacy group’s headquarters was a post office box in Nevada,
- its members were the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants in the world,
- its executive director was a former tobacco executive adviser, and
- the group’s budget was spent mostly on lobbying and political expenses.
The lead author of a 1987 Swedish study on flame retardant effectiveness, Vytenis Babrauskas, told the Chicago Tribune that his 1987 Swedish efficacy study has been misused by U.S. corporations for their financial benefit. However a 2011 paper, "Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risks" by Babrauskas et al. concluded, "[A] fire safety benefit has not been established" that would justify the hundreds of millions of pounds used over forty years.
Last year California revised its flame retardant law, effective January 1, 2014, stating that upholstery must only withstand a smoldering source rather than an open flame. Because that bill would reduce or eliminate chemical use, Chemtura filed suit to block that law; its Great Lakes Solutions division handles flame retardants. Buyers’ choice is paralyzed by legal limbo.
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Over and over, consumers find themselves coerced into paying for a mandated product that not only proves to be only marginally effective, but also may cause health damage. Enough dissatisfied customers can sharply drop revenues for a company that fails to respond properly to a product safety crisis. But an industry whose product is mandated by government can do whatever it wants. Vaccine manufacturers that bear no financial responsibility for product failure have been directing money and power against complaining consumers, instead of investigating cases, improving products and compensating victims.
Here are some strategies used by producers of chemicals, cigarettes or vaccines against dissatisfied consumers – though if used concurrently, some become mutually exclusive:
- Claim only industry science is valid. Fund questionable papers concluding organobromide compounds or cigarette tar or ethylmercury have no negative effects on human health.
- Massage your data if it’s problematic, à la the CDC’s Thomas Verstraeten and the Generation Zero data on Thimerosal and autism (found at the SafeMinds website).
- Create a faux consumer group to lobby legislators and influence media, whether it’s the Citizens for Fire Safety or government- & pharma-funded Every Child By Two.
- Trumpet your tragedy, drowning out others. Insist measles is worse than autism, rather than acknowledging that both conditions merit research, treatment and compassion.
- Deflect and redirect. Suggest that autism is caused by any of 84,000 untested chemicals, not injections of mercury or viruses.
- Deny the problem even exists. Perpetuate memes saying autism is simply quirkiness, with few or no health issues – the new normal, or the newly discovered old normal.
- Threaten your opposition. Promote mob mentality by suggesting jail time for nonvaccinators after disease outbreaks, while failing to mention when most or all cases were in people who were vaccinated.
Whether using PR, marketing or advertising, corporations know how to manipulate their message and stoke the fires of fear. According to the American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance, the benefits of flame retardants “are often noticed only when they are not present" – pushing potential customers to imagine the worst. Members of the pharmaceutical- and CDC-funded Immunization Action Coalition travel around the U.S. claiming that removing the mercury-based preservative Thimerosal from vaccines will result in catastrophic disease epidemics and death.
In California, people testifying against the 2009 SB-772 bill on flame retardants in home furnishings were portrayed as "crazy environmentalists who didn’t care about people," as one participant recalled. At 1:03:58 in the Toxic Hot Seat video, burn victims and their relatives were brought in to testify on behalf of the chemical companies. Whose heart would not break hearing a little boy testify about his mother dying in a fire? But who also would remain unmoved after viewing the "Not A Coincidence" video, narrated by victims harmed by an HPV vaccine... or their survivors?
Don’t expect corporations to sympathetically open their pocketbooks. Corporations bear a fiduciary duty to protect shareholder profits, using increasingly creative tactics. On May 1, the faux consumer group Every Child By Two will lobby Congress using a video titled "Invisible Threat," which they tout as a “balanced” report about vaccine safety perception. Yet the video is being praised by hospitals affiliated with key vaccine developers also on the payroll of manufacturers such as Merck. The date is near the April release of the film "Bought: The Truth Behind Vaccines, Big Pharma & Your Food."
Emotional blackmail as public opinion strategy is a two-way street. Environmental researchers call the proliferation of under-tested, under-regulated chemicals "a giant uncontrolled experiment on America's children." The same charge is being made against the ever-increasing vaccine schedule administered to infants and toddlers, with no follow-up by physicians, CDC or industry. When a 5-month-old baby stopped breathing after returning from a doctor's appointment in a national media drama February 21, many autism parents shared the same question: Had the infant suffered a vaccine adverse reaction? We probably will never know, because few people know to look. Government and industry simply will not look.
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The public issue of flame retardants became personal when I inadvertently bought a “chemical couch” last October.
Soon after delivery an unpleasant chemical odor emanated from the couch. Over the afternoon the odor got stronger, so I opened windows. That evening my husband, son and I developed headaches. We covered the couch, avoided the living room, and left windows open overnight – though temperatures were at 50 degrees.
Searching the Internet, I found disturbing similar reports by other furniture buyers. I read that outgassing from furniture treated with flame retardants was linked to respiratory illness, cancer, and a variety of other health damage. I found the Proposition 65 label.
Overnight the furnace blew the chemical odor throughout all the rooms. We developed burning eyes and mild nausea. I covered the couch with every blanket in the house, and opened every window. Searching online again, almost every article or comment was negative: the stench (there’s that word again) would take months to “mostly” go away, but toxic chemical dust would get all over us and eventually around the house.
So I called the furniture store and the saleswoman agreed to have the couch removed. She, however, claimed the foam simply had not been “properly cured.” Later while the movers carried the couch down our stairs, one man suffered a frightening asthma attack. After he could breathe freely, I shared what I’d read online… and suggested he pursue a less hazardous occupation.
One of the delivery men had remarked about feeling a dusty coating on his hands, which a Duke researcher says is a major route of exposure. I felt concern for those furniture movers inhaling that toxic chemical dust for hours a day. But what about their many clients – particularly the small children who climb and roll on these couches? Or nursing mothers, unaware that others’ breast milk has tested positive for contamination?
Eliminating toxic chemicals from home products seems like a frustratingly labyrinthine game of Whack-a-Mole. Recently in the United Kingdom, thousands of consumers filed “sofa rash” compensation claims stating they suffered health problems after exposure to dimethyl fumarate (DMF). A Chinese manufacturer had infused 50,000 leather sofas with the fungicide DMF to prevent mold. People using the sofas mysteriously developed rashes, eczema and blisters. Unfortunately when the sufferers stayed home to recover, they had more contact with the poison – worsening symptoms until they eventually determined the source.
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Chemical solutions for consumer problems often begin with good intentions. Fifteen minutes into Toxic Hot Seat, one man describes suffering third degree burns as a child, adding, "I don't want someone else to have to go through that goddamn experience." He became a fire safety advocate who worked (albeit unsuccessfully) to compel tobacco companies to make cigarettes self-extinguishing.
But good intentions can morph into personal bias, skewing public health policymaking. Many in government and advocacy have personal reasons for promoting a particular public health philosophy. Biographies of vaccine researchers and administrators detail first-hand experiences with the effects of life-threatening diseases. But is a bioethicist traumatized by a childhood bout with polio truly an objective voice in the vaccine/autism debate? Will he be fair and responsive to reports that a product intended to protect health is having the opposite effect for others?
For parents of vaccine-injured children, the question of product safety is “asked and answered” – a reversal of public health’s risk/benefit equation. Our chronically ill children are proof of risk made real, despite denials of CDC agencies, vaccine manufacturers and sham advocacy groups. For us, the cure is worse than the disease.
Society cannot continue to support the devastation and costs wrought by a government program fostering an epidemic of neuroimmune damage. In an age when U.S. children are the unhealthiest ever and the autism rate is 1 in 50, it’s imperative that vaccine policymakers start providing taxpaying consumers with honest research and informed consent.
Like the in-home holocaust of Pink Disease caused by mercury in medicine seven decades ago, the vaccine/autism catastrophe should not require several generations’ distance before the unintended human toll of chemical cures is recognized and, hopefully, repaired.
[The Green Science Policy Institute's "Selected Bibliography: Furniture Flame Retardants, Toxicity and Health" (June 2013) is available at the website for the California Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, which oversees that state's regulations on flame retardants in furniture.]
Nancy Hokkanen is Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.