Inside the Toxics Industry

Dirty tricks, bully tactics and billions in influence

Massive industry groups including the American Chemistry Council and Toy Industry Association make it their business to oppose state environmental health efforts.

Dirty Tricks Revealed

State advocates have known for some time that massive industry groups are working to quash state efforts one by one, using the same slanted facts and half-truths. In spring 2012, the Chicago Tribune wrote an investigative series revealing these tactics, and drawing direct connections to the strategies used by the tobacco lobby. The series focuses on methods used by industry to ensure that pumping millions of pounds of flame retardants into household goods each year despite health risks and questionable effectiveness. That same fall, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about the chemical industry’s national efforts to suppress, delay and destroy studies of carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde.

The American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is a $100-million trade association representing over 150 of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world. Even as industry representatives say they are in favor of safer chemicals and policy reform, they routinely conduct campaigns to quash state policy. In fact, the Center for Public Integrity reports that, among the group’s accomplishments in its 2010 annual tax report, it boasts work to “defeat, amend or postpone the passage of more than 300 flawed bills dealing with chemicals and plastics in 44 states.”   

The Toy Industry Association

The Toy Industry Association (TIA) represents 750 businesses accounting for 85% of the $22 billion industry. The association says that it works with “government officials, consumer groups and industry leaders on ongoing programs to ensure safe play.” Apparently, that work includes being among the most consistent and aggressive opponent of state chemical safety requirements. In 2011 alone, the TIA lobbied aggressively against bills covering toxic chemicals in children’s products from Maine to Washington state. The same year, they took positions on 33 bills in the New York State Assembly, including bills on furniture, lighting and appliances with no impact on toy makers. In some cases, TIA efforts have been rebuffed and state policy has led to industry change. When Maine required manufacturers to report BPA in toys, Hasbro reformulated their product line to eliminate BPA. 

"Rather than joining other downstream industries committed to reporting chemical use and avoiding dangerous chemicals, the toy industry has become widely recognized as an apologist for the toxic chemical industry." Mike Belliveau, Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Dirty Tricks: Citizens for Fire Safety

Flame retardant chemicals are big business: they are widely used in furniture, electronics and other consumer products. So the three biggest manufacturers believe their use is worth defending, even when the chemicals don’t work to stop fires and are linked to neurological disorders, cancer and infertility. In 2007,  the three industry groups created a false front called “Citizens for Fire Safety” that claimed to be “fire professionals, educators and community activists.” Between 2008 and 2010, they spend $17 million to create distorted science, fabricate emotional stories stoking public fear of fire, distribute fear-based propaganda and hire “experts” to testify against flame retardant bans.  After a Chicago Tribune investigative report revealed their tactics in 2012, the group disbanded. The American Chemistry Council denies involvement with the campaign; but the three industries announced that they will now conduct communications efforts through ACC. The Tribune reports that this group is just one in a string of groups across the globe that have used these tactics in the last decade.

More Dirty Tricks

Experts throughout the country have noticed patterns in how industry lobbyists defeat state bills, including deals behind closed doors and quid pro quo agreements between lobbyists and legislators. But sometimes, the opposition is much more overt with their tactics. In 2008, the ACC launched a mail campaign in California suggesting that, if BPA were to be banned from food packaging, the shelves would be bare: “Going to the grocery store may never be the same.” Another tactic is, in addition to lobbying, to hire “experts” to testify against chemical controls. Dr. Gilbert Ross became a well-known hired gun for traveling state to state testifying against phthalate bans, despite having his medical license revoked after participating in a $8 million fraud scheme. The financial trail is also clear, with thousand-dollar donations to election campaigns and millions spent from state to state on lobbying campaigns.

"This kind of stuff just drives people in science crazy. (Scientists) live in a world where if you don't tell the truth, you're excommunicated. From the tobacco industry on down, corporations figure that anything they do to protect their profits is O.K."  Dr. Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri 

David and Goliath: State Advocates

On one side: a $100 million dollar group representing companies with billion-dollar profits from chemical sales. On the other side: environmental health advocates with budgets in the thousands of dollars, supported by donations from concerned parents, doctors, and philanthropic foundations. Many bills are thwarted. Yet despite massive financial backing and dirty tricks, opposition has failed to prevent protective policies in more than half the states in the nation.