I rarely ask you for anything, but this week I am. Please take the time to read the investigative series published this week in the Chicago Tribune that examines the relationship between the fire-retardant and tobacco industries. This is one of the most significant reports I have read in all my years writing about the fire service.
In 1987, then-FIRE CHIEF Editor Bill Randleman and I attended theconference in St. Louis. We were invited to one of the many hospitality suites after the show, and Randleman told me we would go but wouldn’t stay long nor eat or drink. When I asked him why, he said it was because a tobacco company was sponsoring the hospitality suite — and Randleman believed that cigarettes were the leading cause of fire and fire fatalities, so the fire service shouldn’t be fraternizing with the cigarette industry.
But Randleman wanted to see what the tobacco industry was promoting at the time.
I vaguely remember that the handouts weren’t at all related to cigarettes, but rather in support of some safety or prevention campaign. I was young and naïve, so thought little of it, but Randleman was skeptical of Big Tobacco’s motives.
And now, some 25 years later, the Tribune is exposing the tobacco industry’s efforts in the eighties to push flame-retardants instead of developing “fire-safe” cigarettes (which was tobacco’s big push in 2000).
“The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a Tribune review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents,” the series reads.
“These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public's fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials [the National Association of State Fire Marshals] that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause.”
The Tribune article states that scientists today know that some flame-retardants are in household dust and that “toddlers who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.”
The real clincher in the articles that the Tribune also states that the flame-retardants “packed into sofas and easy chairs” don’t work as promised.
This morning I spoke with Ron Coleman, former California state fire marshal and long-time FIRE CHIEF columnist. Since the Tribune published its report, Coleman has received many phone calls about the flame-retardants and the people mentioned in the article. He was appalled by the testimony of a doctor who deliberately lied about babies dying in fires, giving graphic descriptions of events that never happened.
“If you pay people enough, they will say anything,” Coleman said. “Behind that is a moral obligation to do the right thing. If we are in the fire-safety business, we have to be aware of all threats to society and it would almost be naïve to assume that all chemicals are benign.”
The Tribune article raises a number of red flags that every member of the fire service should be aware of — not only for fire prevention, but the health risks for department personnel and members of their communities. “We have a moral obligation, like doctors, to do no harm and to do no harm means we have to take a long objective look at all we are saying and doing with all of our fire resistant concerns,” Coleman said.
For over 25 years, the tobacco industry has been infiltrating fire officials and hoodwinking the fire service. The article should make all of us ask: What else aren’t we being told?
Editor's note: Check FireChief.com next week for a podcast with Ron Coleman about the report.