Marshall Moore was in the hot seat late last month. The official from flame-retardant maker Chemtura was called as a witness before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works on July 24. The panel was ostensibly holding the hearing to prepare its members to vote on a bill (S. 847) to reform the federal chemical control law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which they ultimately approved. While committee members briefly discussed TSCA, the topic of the hearing was flame retardants.
Sparking lawmakers’ interest was a recent hard-hitting investigative series by the Chicago Tribune alleging that flame retardants used in consumer goods are toxic and ineffective. The series also described a fake grassroots group funded by Chemtura and two other makers of these substances, Albemarle and ICL Industrial Products, that campaigned against state legislative efforts to restrict or ban certain flame retardants.
Moore, Chemtura’s director of technology, advocacy, and marketing, had a simple, direct message to lawmakers: “Chemtura stands by its products.”
Flame retardants were also in the spotlight at a hearing held a week earlier by a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, though representatives of chemical companies weren’t called as witnesses. Instead the witness panel included an Environmental Protection Agency official who pointed to a persistent, bioaccumulative component of Chemtura’s flame-retardant mixture Firemaster 550 as an example of a reason TSCA needs reform. Also testifying at that earlier hearing were officials from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the independent, nonprofit product-testing organization Underwriters Laboratories. They told the subcommittee that their tests show flame retardants are essentially ineffective in foam-padded furniture (C&EN, July 23, page 7).
Effectiveness of flame retardants means that the material—such as plastics—to which these compounds are added meets a specific code or standard, Gordon L. Nelson, a chemist who studies polymer flammability, explained to C&EN. Those codes or standards address flammability properties such as time for ignition to start under specified circumstances, flame spread, and ease of extinguishing of a fire, said Nelson, a chemistry professor at Florida Institute of Technology.
At the July 24 hearing, Moore said, “Scientific data show the relative risk associated with our flame retardants is extremely low and is far outweighed by the societal benefits of an innovation that reduces the number and severity of fires that can threaten lives and property.”
To support this claim, Moore cited a 1989 study by the Commerce Department examining products with or without flame retardants. However, the lead author of that study told the Tribune that industry has misrepresented those findings and that the amount of flame retardants used in furniture isn’t effective.
In response, Moore told the committee, “We’ve not distorted the findings of that study.”
Meanwhile, Moore said Chemtura will submit to EPA 17 health and safety studies on 2-ethylhexyl-2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate (TBB), the component of Firemaster 550 that the agency is concerned about. This set of studies is in addition to 15 other studies that Chemtura sent to the agency, he said. EPA intends to assess the risk from TBB in 2013 (C&EN, June 11, page 30).
A Duke University researcher who studies the sources, fate, and health effects of flame retardants challenged Moore’s conclusions on the substances’ safety.
“The potential health effects and other disadvantages with using these chemicals potentially outweigh any purported benefits that some members of industry claim,” said Heather M. Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke.
Stapleton described to the committee the results of a toxicity study on lab rats she and colleagues recently conducted with Firemaster 550. They saw significant changes in hormone levels, early onset of puberty, and obesity in rats exposed to Firemaster 550, she reported. The effects were seen at levels one-tenth of what Chemtura cited as the lowest dose at which adverse effects are observed, Stapleton said. The team of researchers has submitted a paper on this work for publication. It is now undergoing review, she added.
A witness representing fire-retardant makers Albemarle and ICL also defended the chemicals. William K. Rawson, a partner at Latham & Watkins and chair of the law firm’s Washington, D.C.-based environment, land, and resources department, focused on industry’s voluntary phaseout of the flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE).
Rawson argued that available information on the chemical’s toxicity and exposure “supports the conclusion that decaBDE can be used safely as a flame retardant.” Companies voluntarily stopped producing decaBDE, “not because they thought the product posed significant risks to health or the environment,” but because of state legislation banning the chemical and a scientific study that Rawson said was flawed. He did not name the study.
But Hannah Pingree, former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, said industry fought hard against states’ efforts to restrict decaBDE. She described chemical makers’ assaults on 2007 legislation to phase out decaBDE in Maine. Pingree, a Democrat who left the state’s legislature in 2010 because of an eight-year term limit, helped sponsor the measure, which eventually became law.
“That bill attracted more out-of-state lobbying money and deceptive tactics than any other piece of pending legislation I worked on or observed during my entire eight years in the Maine House,” she told the committee.
Pingree described a campaign of television, radio, and newspaper advertisements, as well as direct mailings and “robocalls” to voters, by an organization named Keep America Fire-Safe. This group, which she said was later renamed Citizens for Fire Safety, was sponsored by the three companies that manufacture flame retardants. The ad campaign in Maine claimed that lawmakers were attempting to weaken fire safety and urged the public to call their elected officials to vote against the bill. However, the bill passed the state’s legislature with little opposition, she said.
The experience left her questioning the credibility of companies producing flame retardants, said Pingree, who is now a consultant for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a national coalition of environmental and health groups and businesses that are calling for reform of TSCA.
“I don’t trust these companies to tell the truth about these chemicals, and I don’t think the American public or U.S. senators should either,” Pingree told the committee.
Under questioning from Committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Moore acknowledged that Chemtura was a founding member of Citizens for Fire Safety.
“You’re a chemical company, but you’re suddenly considered some kind of advocate for fire safety,” Boxer stated. “You don’t see a conflict of interest?”
Moore said he saw no conflict of interest in the company’s action, given that it sells flame retardants.
At the end of the hearing, Boxer asked Moore and other witnesses at the hearing whether chemical manufacturers should have to prove, through unbiased studies, that their products are safe for pregnant women, infants, and children before selling those substances in the U.S. On this point, Moore, Stapleton, and Pingree agreed. Yes, they replied. Rawson argued that Boxer’s question could not be answered without qualifications.