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Meet Joe Chemical

by Rudy M. Baum
June 25, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 26

You have to hand it to the folks at the Environmental Defense Fund. They sure know how to demonize the opposition.

These days, being linked to Big Tobacco is just about any industry’s worst public relations nightmare. But that’s just the position into which EDF is trying to put the chemical industry. EDF and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF) have created “Joe Chemical,” a lineal descendant of Joe Camel, the cartoon character R. J. Reynolds used to market its Camel-brand cigarettes.

Is it fair? Probably not. Effective? You bet.

EDF’s linkage of the tobacco and chemical industries stems from a four-part series, “Playing with Fire,” that appeared in early May in the Chicago Tribune on flame-retardant chemicals. The gist of the very long series is that flame retardants are toxic and don’t work. The series argues that the chemicals are only incorporated into consumer products because tobacco companies did not want to create self-extinguishing cigarettes in response to concerns about unattended cigarettes setting houses on fire. Instead of creating safer cigarettes, tobacco companies, chemical companies, lobbyists, and front organizations successfully campaigned for flame-resistant furniture, pillows, carpets, and the like.

According to the Tribune series, this effort created a multi-billion-dollar business for a few chemical companies that they have gone to great, and unethical, lengths to protect.

There are a lot of things wrong with the series. The stories insist that flame-retardant chemicals are not effective in preventing fires, but the evidence supporting this claim is not as strong as it is made out to be. Much more important, flame retardants are called “toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems, and impaired fertility.” The series presents no data or documentation to support this claim, which is asserted repeatedly. None.

What the series does do is establish the fact that tobacco and chemical companies worked with lobbyists to advance the idea that flame-retardant chemicals are effective in preventing fires and that they should be incorporated into a wide range of consumer products. To advance these claims, the industries funded groups like Citizens for Fire Safety and formed an unholy alliance with the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

Referencing “Playing with Fire,” the SCHF blog asks the questions, “Is it unfair to compare the chemical industry in 2012 to the tobacco industry in the 1990s? Is it too harsh to suggest that we’ve migrated from Joe Camel to ‘Joe Chemical’?”

Of course not. And it’s not just flame-retardant manufacturers that merit the label, SCHF maintains. As C&EN has reported, 21 state legislators from 10 states have urged the American Chemistry Council to expel three member companies—Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL Industrial Products—because their actions as revealed by the Tribune violate ACC’s Responsible Care program (C&EN, June 11, page 7).

“This industry has waved Responsible Care in the face of anyone calling for increased oversight of chemicals for 25 years,” SCHF states. “Large companies like Dow, DuPont, BASF, and ExxonMobil have made strong claims that their own standards for chemical safety are rigorous and the only problem is lack of public confidence. So why are they utterly silent now? What do they have to say about these deceptive practices? Why do they refuse to come to the table and help create a new federal oversight system? Until they do we’ve got two words for them: Joe Chemical.”

I think the chemical industry has made great progress in communicating a commitment to safe practices and sustainability to the public over the past two decades. Flawed though it is, a series of articles like “Playing with Fire” goes a long ways toward undoing that progress, which is too bad.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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