The chemical industry’s powerful trade group, the American Chemistry Council, has long maintained that it had nothing to do with an enormously successful but deceitful lobbying effort in state capitals to defend the use of potentially ineffective and toxic flame retardants in furniture.
Now, in a rare breaking of ranks, a top industry consultant is discrediting that story — and in so doing providing a window into the shadowy world of corporate advocacy and its use of front groups that aren’t what they appear.
After a Chicago Tribune investigation in 2012 exposed Citizens for Fire Safety as an industry group masquerading as a coalition of firefighters, educators, community activists, doctors and others, the chemistry council disavowed any affiliation with or support for the group.
The political consultant who ran Citizens for Fire Safety, however, says the council lied about its involvement. Grant David Gillham said the ACC helped create Citizens for Fire Safety and frequently coordinated with his organization.
“They flat out lied about it,” Gillham said in a recent interview. “They denied that they ever did anything with us.”
The American Chemistry Council — whose 153 members include powerhouses such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical and DuPont — stands behind the accuracy of a past statement made by its president and chief executive officer, Cal Dooley, about having no affiliation with Citizens for Fire Safety. Now, however, the council acknowledges for the first time that it engaged in discussions and coordination with the group.
The council’s credibility is crucial as it currently works with a bipartisan group in the Senate to rewrite the law governing the regulation of toxic chemicals. The bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act passed a Senate committee recently by a vote of 15 to 5 and last week picked up 14 new senators as co-sponsors, virtually assuring it can pass the Senate.
Still, nearly every major environmental group opposes it, in part because the American Chemistry Council supports it.
“This is an industry that lies,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. “I think at this point anybody would be foolish to believe them when they say they are serious about reining in the abuses that they’ve committed.”
Cook said he believes the American Chemistry Council wants Congress to gut the power of states to regulate toxic chemicals and give all control to an easily manipulated Environmental Protection Agency.
It was states such as California, Maine and Washington — as opposed to the EPA — that took action to curb the use of flame retardants. Virtually all Americans are exposed to the chemicals, which float as dust particles from seat cushions in a typical home. Yet scientific research has linked some of these chemicals to health problems such as diabetes, IQ deficits, fertility problems and cancer. Some scientists have also questioned whether flame retardants provide any significant benefit in protecting people from fire.
The American Chemistry Council says that the EPA “has identified approximately 50 flame retardants that it says are unlikely to pose a risk to human health.” It says flame retardants “can help save lives.”
In June 2007, a bill banning some forms of flame retardants passed the California State Assembly and was sailing through state Senate committees. At that point, three flame-retardant manufacturers decided to form Citizens for Fire Safety. Those companies were Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp. and ICL Industrial Products. The new group quickly flooded the state with television and radio ads. Gillham says it spent $22 million in 2007 alone to defeat the California bill.
California state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, said the group used questionable tactics such as having burn victims and children give emotionally wrenching testimony even though they had no knowledge of flame retardants.
It also paid $240,000 in 2010 through 2011 to Seattle burn surgeon David Heimbach, who the Tribune reported gave false testimony about babies killed in fires because of the lack of flame retardants. The newspaper found that the babies Heimbach identified didn’t exist, a finding verified by Washington state’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission.
“I can’t say that I’ve seen in my 13 years in Sacramento anything as crass and as insensitive,” Leno said in a recent interview.
After Citizens for Fire Safety was discredited in 2012, current and former lawmakers in Maine asked the American Chemistry Council’s leader to expel the three flame retardant companies behind the group for engaging in unethical tactics. The council’s Dooley wrote back on June 5, 2012, denying any involvement with Citizens for Fire Safety.
“ACC is not affiliated with Citizens for Fire Safety, and neither ACC staff nor resources were used to support activities undertaken by the group,” he wrote.
Gillham, however, said he was called to the ACC’s Sacramento offices at 10 a.m. on August 23, 2007, in the old Senator Hotel across the street from the California State Capitol. Sitting behind the desk was an ACC executive. It was at this meeting, Gillham said, that he was interviewed to head the new group to be called Citizens for Fire Safety. He said it was made clear that he was not to reveal his association with the chemical industry.
Gillham’s job was to make sure a bill in California to ban flame retardants failed. On Sept. 12, 2007, the bill was defeated in the state Senate by one vote.
Gillham said he was paid by the three chemical companies and reported directly to their CEOs. But he said he was in frequent contact over a five-year span with the American Chemistry Council to coordinate activities. He said Citizens for Fire Safety directed all calls from journalists to the council, which also handled all scientific matters on flame retardants.
Gillham provided the Center for Public Integrity calendar entries of meetings with ACC representatives, email conversations and strategy documents produced with the council. Among them was a tentative ACC agenda for a two-day meeting in its Washington, D.C., offices in July 2011 to discuss flame retardant issues. Gillham is listed as one of the speakers on “US State Advocacy.”