Twenty-five years ago, scientists gathered in a cramped government laboratory and set fire to specially designed chairs, TVs and electrical cables packed with flame retardants. For the next half-hour, they carefully measured how much the chemicals slowed the blaze.
It was one of the largest studies of its kind, and the chemical industry seized upon it, claiming the results showed that flame retardants gave people a 15-fold increase in time to escape fires.
Manufacturers of flame retardants would repeatedly point to this government study as key proof that these toxic chemicals — embedded in many common household items — prevented residential fires and saved lives.
But the study's lead author, Vytenis Babrauskas, told the Tribune that industry officials have "grossly distorted" the findings of his research, which was not based on real-world conditions. The small amounts of flame retardants in typical home furnishings, he said, offer little to no fire protection.
"Industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful," he said.
The misuse of Babrauskas' work is but one example of how the chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks, a Tribune investigation shows. The industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.
As a result, the chemical industry successfully distorted the basic knowledge about toxic chemicals that are used in consumer products and linked to serious health problems, including cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility.
Industry has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact. They have been cited by consultants, think tanks, regulators and Wikipedia, and have shaped the worldwide debate about the safety of flame retardants.
One series of studies financed by the chemical industry concluded that flame retardants prevent deadly fires, reduce pollutants and save society millions of dollars.
The main basis for these broad claims? A report so obscure it is available only in Swedish.
When the Tribune obtained a copy and translated it, the report revealed that many of industry's wide-ranging claims can be traced to information regarding just eight TV fires in western Stockholm more than 15 years ago.
Although industries often try to spin scientific findings on the safety and effectiveness of their products, the tactics employed by flame retardant manufacturers stand out.
Tom Muir, a Canadian government research analyst for 30 years, called the broad claims based on the eight Stockholm TV fires "the worst example I have ever seen of deliberate misinformation and distortion."
The American Chemistry Council, the leading trade group for the industry, said flame retardants are safe products that help protect life and property. "ACC's work is grounded in scientific evidence, as we believe regulatory decisions related to chemistry must be evaluated on a scientific basis," the trade group said in a written statement.
But when the Tribune asked the trade group to provide research that showed flame retardants are effective, the council initially provided only one study — the one Babrauskas wrote and now says is being distorted by industry.
Later, in response to additional questions from the newspaper, the trade group highlighted a different study as evidence that flame retardants work well: research based largely on the obscure Swedish report.
In reviewing key scientific studies and analyses behind the chemical industry's most common arguments, the Tribune identified flaws so basic they violate central tenets of science.
When Babrauskas and his team of scientists began their pioneering research in 1987, it was well-established that flame retardants slowed fires — at least when massive amounts were packed into products.
Makers of flame retardants manipulate research findings to back their products, downplay health risks
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