For Corporate Polluters’ Front Groups, Every Day is Defraud the Earth Day

If you heard of a great, health-protective advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety (CFFS), you might want to learn more before joining their efforts to protect children from fire hazards.

So it might really annoy, disappoint, even enrage you to learn that they don’t really represent citizens. And that they don’t really care about fire safety.

CFFS is a classic industry front group, a fraud created by the flame retardant industry as a way to pretend that there is grassroots support for the industry’s harmful products.

The makers of toxic chemical flame retardants have hoodwinked legislators into creating regulations that require such absurdly broad use of their hazardous chemicals that flame retardants are now found in thousands of consumer products, everything from cribs to baby carriers to high chairs (whoops, gotta go, my high chair just caught fire).

But the secret is getting out, and parents are learning that flame retardant chemicals may pose serious health threats, and several state governments are considering bans on certain flame retardant chemicals.

Enter CFFS. The flame retardant companies, led by chemical industry giants Albemarle and Chemtura corporations, know that no one believes that they care about children’s health or the environment. So they paid public relations firms to come up with a front, a group that can speak for them without revealing their actual aims. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber described the front-group creation process in their classic book Trust Us, We’re Experts:

“Public relations firms and corporations have seized upon a slick new way of getting you to buy what they have to sell: Let you hear it from a neutral “third party,” like a professor or a pediatrician or a soccer mom or a watchdog group. The problem is, these third parties are usually anything but neutral. They have been handpicked, cultivated, and meticulously packaged to make you believe what they have to say….”

There’s nothing new about this. Environmental health advocates have long known that CFFS is an industry stooge. The group was first exposed by the Environmental Health Fund, who revealed CFFS’ work to stop much needed health protective limits on toxic flame retardants.

What is new is the increasing breadth and deviousness of CFSS’ underhanded tactics. I can tell you because CEH has recently had first-hand experience with the front-group’s attempts to fool actual public interest groups into supporting the chemical industry’s agenda.

In a recent email, colleagues in the environmental health movement told us that a Jason Sabo from CFFS called them, asking for their support against tougher state laws on flame retardants. They said that Jason claimed that we at the Center for Environmental Health recommended that he contact them.

So, to be clear: a paid liar for the chemical industry tried to trick an environmental health organization into opposing efforts to ban toxic chemicals, by lying and saying the Center for Environmental Health was on his side.

Trouble is, CEH had never had any communication with Sabo or anyone else at CFFS, and if we had, we’d more likely recommend they go to hell. (Oddly, a few days after we heard from our colleagues, our Director received a phone message from Jason, asking if we’d support CFFS!)

Jason Sabo actually works as an “Account Coordinator” for a PR firm called JCI Worldwide (he’s a busy boy – according to his LinkedIn profile, he also maintains a night job as Head Server at the trendy Beverley Hills’ restaurant Villa Bianca, where, according to recent reviews, service appears to be slipping).

In his work for JCI, one of Jason’s main tasks seems to be posting the same comment over-and-over on any website that discusses the health hazards of flame retardants (he posted it on this site as well, but since we try to discourage fraudulent posers using our blog to spread lies, we took it down). Meanwhile, his more experienced JCI colleagues (the faux “citizens” of CFFS) work to stop health protective legislative efforts in Oregon, Maryland, California and other states.

In an email to one environmental health group (that they passed along to us), Jason complained that CFFS was being called an industry front. “Contrary to what you may have thought in the past, Citizens for Fire Safety is not a ‘front group,’ as we fully disclose who we work with,” he wrote. “This would be like saying Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut is a ‘front group’ for environmental funding.”

But in fact CFFS refuses to make public their sources of funding or anything about their structure or staffing. Their website lists no staff or Board members (they claim to have an Advisory Board, but again they list no members). The group’s SafePhaseOut site, which Jason links to in his repeated blogosphere comments, also lists no staff, Board or funding disclosures – but it does offer “helpful links” to pro-flame retardant propaganda from Albemarle and Chemtura.

A 2008 tax form CFFS filed with the IRS divulges a bit more about their activities and funding. While the CFFS website describes the group as a coalition consisting of “fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders….,” it is in fact legally incorporated as a 501(c)(6) organization, an IRS category used for business trade groups. Since there are greater consequences from lying to the IRS than there are from lying to me and you, CFFS describes its main activities more truthfully in its tax form, which states the group’s focus as: “trade association activities to promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry….”

Jason, if you’re reading this (and I’m guessing you are, since you seem to spend a lot of time posting your silly comment on blogs), here’s how you know when you work for a front group:

  1. You claim to work for citizens (or friends, consumers, or others) in favor of one thing, when in fact you work for corporations that lie to protect their profits;
  2. You have difficulty understanding the difference between an industry trade group and real public-interest nonprofits who represent people who have no financial stake but who actually care about health and the environment;
  3. Dozens of actual health and environmental groups describe your employer as a front-group; and
  4. The corporations that you work for are so desperate that they need to hire a busboy to run their public relations campaigns.

Happy Earth Day!