July 21, 2014 Leave a comment
Back in November, I read this Kristof column that referenced the documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat.” I put it on the DVR and finally watched it last week. Really good stuff (though, as film-making, a little bloated at 90 minutes). Here’s the summary from Kristof:
RESEARCHERS this summer purchased 42 children’s chairs, sofas and other furniture from major retailers and tested them for toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q.’s and other problems.
In a study released a few days ago,the Center for Environmental Health reported the results: the toxins were found in all but four of the products tested…
These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery, powerfully told in a new HBO documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat,” that is scheduled to air on Monday evening.
This is a televised window into political intrigue and duplicity that makes “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad” seem like a Sunday school picnic.
The story goes back to the 1970s, when the tobacco industry was under pressure to make self-extinguishing cigarettes because so many people were dying in fires caused by careless smokers. The tobacco industry didn’t want to tinker with cigarettes, so it lobbied instead for requiring flame retardants in mattresses and couches.
This became a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for the chemical industry, but studies showed that flame retardants as actually used in sofas don’t prevent fires. This is easy to test: Just set a cushion on fire. The documentary shows that it will burn right up.
More than anything, this was a documentary about how those with money and strong financial incentive manipulate our political process not just to their financial gain, but literally to the death of others (it’s pretty clear that exposure to all these chemicals is responsible for at least some rare cancers in firefighters):
As the evidence grew about the danger of flame retardants, legislation was proposed in California, Maine and elsewhere to curb these chemicals. That’s when a mysterious organization called Citizens for Fire Safety Institute began running commercials defending the chemicals.
“The California Legislature is considering a bill that will endanger our children,” the group warned in one commercial. Another cautioned that without flame retardants, household furniture would spread fire through a home.
“Say no to laws that put our children in danger,” the group warned.
So who are these Citizens for Fire Safety? Their website once showed an image of children in front of a fire station and described the group as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”
“Toxic Hot Seat” follows a group of Chicago Tribune reporters as they dig into Citizens for Fire Safety. Their excavation of public records revealed that this “coalition” has just three members — a trio of giant companies manufacturing flame retardants. The organization was a lie, meant to deceive politicians and voters.
Just a powerful indictment of the chemical industry and the callowness of our politicians, who should be protecting us. I was pretty curious to see the response from the chemical industry. It’s here. And it’s a masterclass in how to mislead with carefully-chosen language. My favorite part:
“The docudrama also paints an incomplete and distorted picture of current regulation. The fact is that more than a dozen federal laws govern the safe manufacture and use of flame retardants, and all new flame retardants must be rigorously evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency before manufacture.
The key issue in the documentary is the California law, not national laws, which actually ends up setting a de facto national standard. Furthermore, notice that all new flame retardants must be rigorously evaluated. They are free to slowly poison us with the old ones. The makers of the documentary are clearly making a piece of advocay, but that is certainly not the case with the reporters at the Chicago Tribune. You can check out their great reporting, featured prominently in the film, here.