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All-out blitz on fire-retardant bill

Environmental groups have launched a media and letter-writing campaign to try to save AB 706, a bill from Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would ban two classes of fire retardants they say cause cancer. This is despite opposition, and a likely veto, from the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile, a chemical industry-backed group called Californians for Fire Safety has launched their own media blitz to defeat the bill in the Senate, including full-page newspaper ads and mailers targeting the constituents of at least one key senator. They’ve also funded automated calls to Los Angeles-area voters featuring the voice of Tom Brace, a former Minnesota state fire marshal who was involved in that state’s debate on fire-safe cigarettes in the 1990s.

AB 706 would ban chlorinated and brominated fire retardants currently used in residential furniture in California. Environmentalists say these chemicals cause cancer and other serious health problems–particularly among firefighters, as they break down into more toxic substances when they burn. The bill’s supporters note that California law allows the use of these chemicals to meet California’s fire safety standards, even though they were banned in children’s sleepwear 30 years ago.

“There’s absolutely no reason to use these toxic flame retardant chemicals in our furniture, said Russell Long of Friends of the Earth, a co-sponsor of the bill. “The commercial furniture industry and the mattress industry achieve even higher levels of fire safety without them.

“They’re really making what I consider some outrageous claims,” said John Kyte, North American director of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum in Louisiana.

Kyte, who is also an executive at the public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, said the bill is a uncalled for blanket ban on an entire class of chemicals, and that proper alternatives have yet to be found.

Kyte disputed the notion that there has been any spike in cancers among firefighters that could be linked to these chemicals. He also noted the disproportionate effect fires have on minority and immigrant communities, and touted recent letters of opposition to the bill from the California Fire Chiefs Association and the California Black Chamber of Commerce. [The California Fire Chiefs have since withdrawn their opposition].

“They do not care about facts and science, only about the emotional appeal of being able to say ‘We have some firefighters on our side,'” Kyte said of the opposition.

Voters are hearing versions of these arguments, albeit in a slightly more dramatic format. One group supporting the bill, Making Our Milk Safe, launched a Web site called killercouch.com, complete with a satirized version of a ’50s horror movie clip intended to draw people into a letter-writing campaign to the governor. They’re advertising on numerous Web sites, including the Capitol Weekly. MOMS also sent out an e-mail blast to 20,000 people this week, asking them to write to the governor and legislators; Friends of the Earth e-mailed 7,000 people.

MOMS’ Mary Brune has also spoken out about her own father, a New Jersey firefighter who died in 2002 at the age of 61. She blames his many ailments–prostate cancer, heart problems and kidney disease–on years of exposure to toxic fire residues.

On August 23, Leno re-christened his bill after Crystal Golden-Jefferson, a firefighter for Los Angeles County who died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the press conference, Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist who whose research led to the fire-retardant tris being taken out of children’s sleepwear in the 1970s, said that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of several types of cancer linked to fire retardants–and which is very common among firefighters. The San Francisco Fire Department alone has had 250 cancer cases and 40 cancer deaths in the last 10 years alone, Leno said.

“The bromine industry is spending millions on media and PR against AB 706. Why can’t they spend thousands on animal tests to show whether or not their chemicals are safe?” asked Arlene Blum.

Meanwhile, Californians for Fire Safety has sent a mailer to Saratoga voters reading “California’s tough fire safety standards and regulations have helped reduce fire deaths by 64 percent.” It also urges them to contact their senator, Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, and urge him to vote no on the bill. A moderate Republican, Maldonado is seen as a key swing vote on many environmental bills.
Leno’s staff said his 64 percent reduction is largely due to factors besides fire retardants, such as better electrical codes, building standards and increased use of smoke detectors.

On Wednesday, the group ran full-page color ads in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle and other papers. The ad showed a suburb being engulfed in flames under the banner “Don’t let Sacramento Weaken Fire Safety.” Kyte confirmed the newspaper ads, but declined to say whether Californians for Fire Safety was also buying television ads.

Californians for Fire Safety lists several chemical companies and industry groups among their backers, including the American Chemistry Council, the CA Chamber of Commerce, the Chemical Industry Council of California and the company Chemtura.

The group’s Web site also lists several state agencies as opposing the bill, including Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Finance, and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Rick Brausch, deputy director of legislation at DTSC, and Sam Delson, deputy director for external and legislative affairs of OEHHA, both registered opposition at hearings on AB 706.

“It’s a third party that listed our position,” Delson said of his agency’s listing on the Web site. “It’s something we have no control over.”
Former Minnesota Fire Marshal Brace testified against the bill at a July 9 Senate Business and Professions committee hearing. In a calls heard by Los Angeles voters, he invited them to call a number of learn more about the legislation.

Jeanne Weigum, founder of the Association for Nonsmokers of Minnesota, said that Brace was instrumental in preventing fire safe cigarette legislation for years. She provided several documents as examples, including a February 1995 fax from Washington lobbyist Peter Sparber detailing communications with Brace on the issue. A 1998 St. Paul Pioneer Press article detailed Brace’s work speaking against a law calling for cigarettes that burn themselves out–something industry long opposed because they cause people to smoke fewer cigarettes–and documented several payments from tobacco companies to firefighter groups. Brace was quoted as saying he would no longer take tobacco money.

The bill is currently sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee suspense file. Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said the bill could have a significant fiscal impact; she also said Leno failed to give the committee a priority list for his bills.

“The chief consultants of the Assembly and Senate Appropriations Committees had a documented agreement to follow the long standing tradition that the chairs would not submit a priority list,” countered Shannan Velayas, Leno’s press secretary. “Instead, the chairs met for hours in person which has always been the case.”

AB 706’s opponents have also spent on lobbying. In the first six months of this year, the industry-supported Br
omine Science and Environmental Forum has paid $172,000 to KP Public affairs to lobby against AB 706 and another flame-retardant ban. AB 513 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, would ban several chemicals, including some brominated fire retardants.

In the first week of August, the Bromine Council hired two more lobbyists. One of these firms, McCabe & Company, also represent the Hemp Industries Association and Vote Hemp Inc. These groups are the sponsors of AB 684, Leno’s bill to legalize hemp production.

Gordon Damant, owner and founder of InterCity Testing and Consulting Corp., takes issue with the scientific claims made by the bills supporters. Demant worked for the California Bureau of Home Furnishings for three decades, and served as its director for half that time. He now makes his living largely as an expert witness in trials, and claims he had received no payments from the Bromine Council or Californians for Fire Safety.

He said these chemicals can slow down a fire by 30 minutes, preventing it from getting out of control or at least buying time for people to get out, he said. He said that over the last 30 years fire-fatality statistics in California have been “significantly better” than those for other states. Furniture padding is usually made from polyurethane foam, which is “one of the most flammable materials out there.”

“If the rest of the U.S. had adopted California’s standards, and those standards had been enforced, thousands of deaths may have been prevented,” Damant said.

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