How Muzzling Scientists Helps the Chemical Industry

May 16, 2012

A Chicago Tribune investigative series on flame retardant chemicals helps illustrate how federal agency control of what scientists say to reporters can help the chemical and tobacco industries.

Many people have died over the years in fires started when a lighted cigarette ignited a couch or mattress. The series recounts how the tobacco industry shifted responsibility away from its products by pushing to add toxic flame-retardant chemicals to furniture. In 2003, a top EPA official declared the flame retardant chemical Firemaster 550 a breakthrough that would not persist in the environment or accumulate in people's bodies.

The story was told in the last part of the Tribune's series by reporter Michael Hawthorne.

"Not everyone at the EPA believed that rosy public assessment," Hawthorne wrote. "Documents obtained by the Tribune show that scientists within the agency were deeply skeptical about the safety of Firemaster 550, predicting that its chemical ingredients would escape into the environment and break down into byproducts that would pose lasting health hazards."

Hawthorne went on: "Today, in sharp contrast to the promises of industry and government, chemicals in the flame retardant are being found everywhere from house dust in Boston to the air in Chicago. There also are signs the chemicals are building up in wildlife, prompting concern that Firemaster 550 or its byproducts could be accumulating in people."

Today, EPA's press policy requires EPA scientists to obtain permission from the EPA press office, run by political appointees, before they can talk to reporters. The Society of Environmental Journalists has urged EPA to lift these restrictions and allow unfettered communication between reporters and EPA staff.