Last month, we read a powerful story about just how far one industry would go to protect its bottom line.
In a four-part exposé in the Chicago Tribune titled "Playing with Fire," we learned how big chemical companies — on a mission to sell more toxic chemicals — covered up the health impacts of their products, exaggerated their effectiveness, and went to extremes to scare legislators like us, poised to regulate these chemicals.
The Tribune series detailed how the industry set up sham "citizen groups" to promote its agenda in the media, lied to low-income communities to garner community leaders' support, and even teamed up with Big Tobacco. At its worst, the chemical industry hired a doctor to travel from state to state, telling legislators the tale of a baby who died because of a lack of chemical flame retardants in her crib. The story was later revealed to be false, but it exposed just how low this industry will go to win.
As state legislators in Maryland and Maine, we had a front-row view of these tactics, and the shocking stories in the Tribune's series seemed all too familiar. We have each sponsored bills to phase out certain kinds of toxic flame retardants. The chemicals were proven to do little to prevent fires and, worse, had been shown in numerous studies to cause hormone disruption, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility. Europe had already started to take action to limit the use of these chemicals. The case for phase-out, especially in household products, was very clear.
In an aggressive effort to dissuade our fellow state legislators from instituting a ban, the chemical industry sent an army of lobbyists to our states. They spent piles of money on paid television and newspaper ads in Maine telling people to call their legislators because fire safety was being threatened. And in Maryland, they sent out mailers to the same effect. The front group paying for the ads, "Citizens for Fire Safety," was a coalition of the three largest flame retardant manufacturers.
Despite the industry campaign, the toxic chemicals were phased out in Maine and Maryland. The bills received vast bipartisan support in our states. But in many other states, the industry was successful, and its money and untruths squelched reform. And the industry is still at it today in the states and at the federal level. InWashington, D.C., these same industry members are roaming the halls of Congress, in an effort to defeat reform of our chemical safety laws.
The United States chemical industry needs to be held to account.
Today, we are sending a letter to the head of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's trade group, to ask it to account for the actions of the chemical industry in these state legislative debates. The letter is co-signed by 18 state legislators from around the country who directly engaged in state battles over flame retardant regulations in California, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Maryland and Oregon.
Incidence of certain childhood cancers, learning disabilities and reproductive problems are rising at alarming rates. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that toxic chemicals we are exposed to every day can significantly increase the risk of developing these and other diseases and disorders. State laws are making a difference on this issue, but federal reform is badly needed.
Most Americans are shocked to learn that there is little government oversight over most chemicals used in consumer products in our country. The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg and currently before the U.S. Senate, would go a long way to fix this broken system.
Sadly, most Americans trust that someone must be looking out for our safety and health. Unfortunately, that confidence is misplaced. It is time we demand action from the federal government to change this system. And it is time the chemical industry started putting the health and safety of American families first.