Toxic Money

Big Chem, dirty politics, and the poison in your couch.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means. Big Chem knows that politics can be business by other means. You’ve got to hand it to them: they’ve used politics with astounding effectiveness to secure their bottom line. The result is literally toxic for the rest of us.

The chemical industry spent nearly $5 million a year over the past five years on lobbying and campaign contributions in California. That’s a lot of money for one industry and one state. On the other hand, it’s a pittance, considering the payback: by defending an obscure and ineffective fire-safety regulation, the industry extends its North American stronghold in a market worth billions of dollar of sales each year. That’s one of the best returns-on-investment imaginable.

(If you’re familiar with this saga, skip this paragraph. If you’re just tuning in, here’s a quick catch-up: California’s flammability standard is a scientifically discredited rule that requires all foam furniture sold in the state to withstand 12 seconds exposed to a candle flame. Because of the scale of California’s market, the rule effectively governs North America’s furniture industry. The cheap way to pass the 12-second test is to blend flame retardant chemicals into foam. The retardants include all manner of health-harming compounds, which leak out of furniture and into our homes, our bodies, and our natural environments. Ostensibly, these chemicals are put into furniture to protect us from fire, but 35 years of fire safety science shows they don’t do their job. Still, policymakers have defended the rule, most recently by a vote of eight to one in a California senate committee. Last time, we deconstructed the illogical and unscientific testimony of the chemical industry’s star witness. So what’s the real reason policymakers refuse to change the rule? We fear the answer is simple: money.)

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig writes in his new book on money in politics Republic, Lost:

The great threat to our republic today…is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people….We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The engine of influence is purring along in California, and the annual legislative battle over California’s flammability standard is a case study in making those most connected rich. According to an investigative report by Environmental Health News, the chemical industry spent at least $23.2 million to lobby California officials and donate to campaigns from 2007 through 2011. This number only includes payments from top flame retardant manufacturers, their trade groups, and their lobbyists. It does not include at least $742,000 in campaign contributions from lesser players in the flame retardant manufacturing industry such as Chevron, Dow, Exxon, and Occidental. It also only includes payments if lobbying groups explicitly listed flame retardants, as opposed to other Big Chem causes, on disclosure forms.

In 2003, California passed the nation’s first law banning two particularly dangerous flame retardants. Then-Governor Gray Davis said California had to act quickly to control the toxic chemicals because the US federal government had failed to do so. Nine years later, Washington, DC, still has not adopted either comprehensive chemical safety reform or a better furniture flammability standard.

And California? After the 2003 bans, no new laws regulating flame retardants passed. Sacramento considered five:

  • In 2007, a bill that outlawed a third flame retardant failed on the assembly floor.
  • In 2008, a bill that prohibited many flame retardants survived the assembly but died on the senate floor. (Over the three months the California legislature was considering the 2008 bill, the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s leading advocacy group, spent at least $4.6 million on lobbying.)
  • In 2009, a bill that exempted children’s products from being treated with toxic flame retardants passed the senate but stalled in an assembly committee.
  • In 2010, a bill that placed flame retardants under the regulatory control of California’s Green Chemistry Initiative failed in the senate.
  • In 2011, a bill that offered manufacturers an alternative flammability standard to the 12-second rule—one which reflects the best fire science and does not favor use of flame retardants—failed in a senate committee, eight to one.

Why the change of heart, Golden State? When the chemical industry saw its profits come under regulatory pressure in 2003, it dramatically increased its lobbying in Sacramento, according to Environmental Health News. Albemarle, Israel Chemicals, Chemtura, and Tosoh are the principal manufacturers of flame retardants used to satisfy the 12-second rule. As the threat of regulations loomed, these companies hired the public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which over the years has served as apologist for  foreign military juntas and those responsible for the Bhopal Disaster and the Blackwater fiasco.

Burson-Marsteller has also made a name for itself by creating and managing astroturf groups, defined in Campaigns & Elections magazine as corporate grassroots groups that involve “the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.” Journalist and author William Greider simply calls faux-grassroots groups “democracy for hire.” Burson-Marsteller has created astroturf groups for the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.

After the 2003 bans in California, Burson-Marsteller organized the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum and Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, the PR arm and astroturf group of the flame retardant superfecta. Since 2007, Burson-Marsteller has spent at least $6.6 million on behalf of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, while Citizens for Fire Safety spent at least $2.2 million on “other payments to influence.”

According to EHN’s report, Senator Mark Leno, author of four of the failed bills, says he goes office to office to make the case for amending or repealing the dangerous flammability standard. “And almost without exception, as I’m leaving my colleague’s office, there’s a lobbyist for the chemical industry in the waiting room to go in to get the last word. And, of course, there’s a dozen of them and one of me.”

In 2011, Leno championed a bill that offered manufacturers a superior flammability standard. As it languished in committee, the chemical industry and its proxies bought influence. Senators Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), Bill Emmerson (R-Riverside), Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Hills), and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) considered the bill. All but Corbett voted against it—casting a vote for more toxic chemicals with no fire safety benefits.

Between 2007 and 2011, the eight committee members who blocked the bill received more than $100,500 of Big Chem money. Representatives McLeod and Hernandez have the dubious honor of being among the top five recipients over that period, raking in $26,294 and $24,900, respectively. The chemical industry spent an average of $8,000 each on the remaining six ‘no’ votes.

Just what sort of profits is the chemical industry protecting? Although they don’t report on profits by product line, Albemarle, Israel Chemicals, Chemtura, and Tosoh saw record earnings in 2011. Albemarle grew revenue by 21% over 2010 to $2.9 billion. Through the third quarter last year, Israel Chemicals delivered $1.1 billion net profit to shareholders. In 2011, Chemtura boasted it continued “the trend of strong year-over-year improvement.” Tosoh announced its consolidated net sales from the 2011 fiscal year were up 8.9% to $8.2 billion. Flame retardants represent a fraction of their profits, but Ceresana Research published a market research study in July 2011 on projected demand for flame retardants. Things look rosy for the $4.6 billion industry; global revenues are expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2018.

As Professor Lessig notes, the great threat to the US republic is transparent to all and drawing democracy away from the will of the people. In California, the engine of influence is fueled by manufacturers of toxic flame retardants. Dr. Arlene Blum, UC Berkeley chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, calls flame retardants the asbestos of our time. We needn’t make a false choice between toxic-free homes and fire safety. Indeed, we can have both, but we must reverse the influence of a tsunami of toxic political money first. We may have to tell Big Chem to do business by business means, not political ones.

Read more about toxic couches:

Valerie Pacino is a Sightline Intern, a Master of Public Health student, and a frustrated couch potato.

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  1. Tom (yes, i am a midwestern conservative) Hatton says:

    A very well-written piece that i find lacking in only a couple ways.

    One, to get past the typical righteous indignation of the left…i’d like an emotional center on which to focus. “Big Chem is bad” and “Politicians can be influenced by money-peddalers” are themes/stories now decades in the making and this one presents no new fodder or angles to ping on my radar. I’ve seen many (even very recently) that present numbers and “facts” that far outweigh the scope and size of those presented here.

    While the passion for the topic is obvious, a major hole (I think) is the lack of presentation of an alternative hypothesis. What would the author (and her cohorts) do, ideally, in the alternative? As best I can gather from the post (and its embedded links), the overarching theme is that there are safer alternatives to fire retardation than treating with these particular chemicals. Fine. There DO exist viable, safer, and much better alternatives. Also very fine. These are not being used. Understandable, as the “safest” and “best” foam put to use would be cost prohibitive. Let’s hypothesize a 1,000.00 couch suddenly costs 2,000.00. Not a very realistic alternative given the broader “world in which we live”.

    But this is where I struggle a bit with the piece. Is the suggestion that we should be using the BEST available raw materials, for maximum safety? If so, we need a much better and deeper look to justify same. However, is the story different than that? Is the author suggesting we just keep using adequate (read: somewhat substandard) raw material, that doesn’t benefit from these chemicals (anyway), thereby just making a somewhat crappy product somewhat cheaper? If so, that’s fine…but then you’ve really failed to sway me emotionally.

    I am left, at least a bit, struggling to find the “angle”. and, comparing it (though quite favorably in terms of how well its written) to much of the typical alarmist liberal stuff i consume as counterpoint to what i tend to believe and favor.

    Being a long-time Californian, reformed social liberal, and interested/open-minded (enough!) reader… I found this post compelling and well-written and conceived of adequate detail to pass around to my many friends and colleagues for their consideration (those being very left, right and centrist). I am interested to see where they fall out on these issues.

    • Dave Kershner says:

      I am not finding the evidence that doing away with the 12-second rule and the use of chlorine- and bromine-based flame retardants in the manufacture of foam furnishings is going to be cost prohibitive. Valerie’s related January 16 post notes that regular mattresses are not subject to the 12-second rule. There are plenty of reasonably-priced mattresses for sale in California. Therefore, it seems unlikely that doing away with the 12-second rule for couches or other home furnishings would increase costs very much. Please stay open minded, Tom. Thanks Valerie, for helping expose Big Chem’s shameless defense of a scientifically indefensible and dangerous regulation.

      • Tom (yes, i am a midwestern conservative) Hatton says:


        citing the embedded link to the scientific study by IAFSS 2011, there exist “advanced foams” that actually do work significantly to increase fire retardant. it also says these foams are not used. why not? what, would you propose would be the reason that an obviously superior product would not be used in residential applications?

        my point is (was)…what is the central thesis of this argument? is it to employ maximum (yet safe) fire retardant characteristics in residential applications? or, is it to simply do away with the chemical treating of the obviously inferior (yet deemed “adequate”, i guess) foam…this making it “safer” and probably even a bit cheaper?

        further, if the argument is trying to grab me by the neck and shake me into the “safety” angle…you’d better start with not just taking out a couple chemicals that may make the occasional human or a pet a little sick, but actually argue for using foam that IS safer (as that study points out).

        it’s like you’re telling me to get a better seat belt mechanism for my 1970’s Pinto, because the other one doesn’t protect me as well… but fail to note that the gas tank getting rear ended is going to blow me up either way.

  2. Dave Kershner says:


    The central issue is this: the 12-second rule has no significant fire safety benefit. It makes no sense to require toxic flame retardants to be added to foam products if they don’t significantly reduce the fire danger, when we know they increase the risk of a host of serious health problems.

    While I agree that better seat belts are not going to make your Pinto a safe car, I don’t think that analogy really applies here. Doing away with the 12-second rule and replacing it with the one Senator Mark Leno introduced in the California Legislature is more like retrofitting the Pinto’s gas tank with protective shielding and a longer fuel tank filler neck (the fixes Ford employed when it recalled the Pinto) in order to save lives. The Ford recall in 1978 was long overdue, as is the repeal of the 12-second rule.

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