Michael Green

Grant Gillham is a victim. For five years, companies that make toxic flame retardant chemicals told Grant that they had hard science to show that their products save lives. Without flame retardants in all of our furniture, they’d say, thousands of children would die in house fires every year.

But the flame retardant companies were lying. The science actually showed that their chemicals don’t work as advertised in furniture or many other products. Even worse, unequivocal science showed that toxic flame retardants were increasingly being linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious illnesses, and could leach out of furniture, poisoning our children and families.

The flame retardant companies didn’t just lie to Grant Gillham; they lied to us all. What’s different about Grant? He’s the public relations expert the flame retardant companies hired to manage their campaign of lies. He has now come forward, he says, to expose the lies the companies told about the safety of their chemicals.

For five years, Grant waged a deceptive campaign on behalf of the companies. Today, as he’s questioning the companies’ claims. His business is declining because he’s now known, he says, as “the guy that lied for the flame retardant companies.” But for all businesses, the key question remains: In a world of spin, how can companies conduct ethical public relations?

Citizens for fraudulent fronts

Before Grant came to work with the industry, two states had passed restrictions on some flame retardants. The three leading flame retardant companies, Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products, fought those bills through a group they called the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, named for the brominated chemicals they make. The losses led them to a new strategy. They told Grant they wanted him to create a different group, one they could portray as a grassroots alliance of organizations who wanted to protect the life-saving uses of the chemicals. As Grant says, “They wanted us to keep their names out of it … in other words, they wanted a front group.” They called the group Citizens for Fire Safety.

As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton explain in their classic book, “Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry,” chemical corporations use front groups because they know that the public does not trust them to tell the truth about their products. We know that chemical companies’ primary interest is profits, not safety. But a “citizens group” sounds like an independent voice – so companies can hide behind this false front, giving the illusion of grassroots support for what is actually corporate propaganda.

Lessons from big tobacco

Grant Gillham also worked for the tobacco industry, which was well known for its use of front groups. For example, in California, Altria (Phillip Morris) created a front group called Taxpayers Against Out-of-Control Spending, to fight a ballot measure that called for a cigarette tax. One California newspaper, the Vallejo Times-Herald, called the tobacco industry’s ad campaign “shameful, deceitful (and) irresponsible,” but it successfully beat back the tax, despite support for the tax from the American Cancer Society and other anti-smoking groups.

So, Grant was aware of the power of front groups. Over five years, Citizens for Fire Safety (CFFS) successfully defeated 58 out of 60 state legislative attempts to regulate toxic flame retardant chemicals. Their tactics included:

  • Creating a website describing CFFS as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders …” In fact, Citizens for Fire Safety was solely funded and managed by the flame retardant companies.
  • Making the use of chemical flame retardants into a racial issue, by calling health advocates “racist” for advocating against the chemicals, and using ethnic community members as lobbyists for Asian-American and African-American lawmakers.
  • Misrepresenting the views of other organizations, including a Washington state burn center and my own organization, CEH, in attempts to persuade other organizations into opposing flame retardant regulations.

In one of the most egregious deceptions perpetrated by CFFS, the flame retardant companies’ front group paid a prominent burn doctor for his expertise. As exposed by theChicago Tribune, in testimony at several state legislative hearings across the country, Dr. David Heimbach invented a case of a badly burned baby who was harmed when her mother put a candle in her crib. The baby burned, he said, because her pillow was made without flame retardant chemicals.

In fact, there was no such case. The only similar case of a burned child seen by Heimbach had nothing to do with a candle or a lack of flame retardant chemicals. While Heimbach claimed that patient privacy rules forbade him from disclosing details about the actual patient, the Tribune found that his misrepresentations had nothing to do with privacy issues, and that he showed legislators photos of a burned baby, without the knowledge of the baby’s mother. Heimbach told the Tribune, the baby episode was “an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.”

Safety, not spin

When the Tribune exposed the chemical companies’ long-running and deceptive campaign, they quickly shut down CFFS and fired Grant. Just a year later, California, the main battleground over state rules that make a national impact on furniture company policies, finally changed its decades-old rule that had promoted the use of flame retardants, with a new standard that allows furniture makers to produce safer products without the toxic chemicals.

For Grant, the lesson has been a hard one: His reputation is damaged, and his business is suffering. Sadly, the chemical companies seem determined to stand behind their demonstrably false claims. Despite the science showing their products are not effective in furniture, they continue to insist that the chemicals save lives. But other businesses can learn a valuable lesson: Making safer products from the outset can eliminate the need for expensive and ethically questionable public relations campaigns to maintain your market. Businesses who truly put safety first will never have to worry about spinning stories.