Firefighters want flame retardant put out

Los Angeles firefighters

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: Yesterday, we told you about an industrial chemical that's probably in your body. It's a flame retardant found in most homes. It keeps appliances and electrical wiring from catching fire.

We don't know for sure if this chemical causes health problems.But a lot of firefighters wanna get rid of it anyway because of the fumes it gives off when it burns. Sasha Aslanian of American Radio Works has the second part of our series.


Sasha Aslanian: Firefighters have a big voice in any public debate over flame retardants. That's because they put their lives on the line.

Mike Stockstead is head of the Professional Firefighters Union in Minnesota, one of the states that considered a ban on the flame retardant chemical deca this year. He says deca poses an unacceptable risk to firefighters.

Mike Stockstead: Yes, we have self-contained breathing apparatus while we're fighting the fire. But our aerobic capacity is reduced 40 percent when we put this equipment on. So after the fire, we're already exhausted. Often times, we have to take this equipment off to do the clean-ups, we're still breathing them.

No studies prove deca is a health risk for firefighters. But it has been shown to harm brain development in animals. Tests have found the chemical in most people's bodies.

The largest organization of rank and file firefighters in the U.S., The International Association of Firefighters, says there are safer flame retardants that could be used instead.

But Washington State firefighters saw their former fire marshal testify before their state legislature earlier this year on the other side, against a ban:

Tom Brace: My name is Tom Brace. I feel that I've come home in a sense, I was the Washington state director of the State Fire Marshal's office.

And Brace is now the executive director of the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association.

What he didn't say is that he's also a paid industry lobbyist. Two other people from fire safety groups who testified that day made the same omission.

Brace says he signed on to lobby for the companies that make flame retardants because he doesn't want fire safety sacrificed in an environmental debate.

Brace: I would be less than candid with you if I told you that when fire safety and the environment interface, at least based on history, fire safety issues become secondary. And I'm concerned about that, because I'm a fire guy.

Stockstead: I guess I felt that the brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighting is betrayed.

Mike Stockstead of the firefighters union says firefighters in Brace's home state were stung by his decision to serve as a paid lobbyist while representing the fire chiefs.

Stockstead: We're not interested in selling our opinion or our name. Our allegiance is to the public and to our firefighters, their health and safety.

The flame retardant industry group that hired Brace, The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, has forged other ties with firefighters. It makes charitable donations to fire groups. Industry lobbyists serve on boards and committees for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the National Association of State Fire Marshals. Environmentalists criticize the industry group's tactics.

Kenny Bruno is with the Environmental Health Fund:

Kenny Bruno: It's a very cynical strategy because nobody's proposing to weaken fire safety standards. But it's also a very clever strategy, because everyone really respects the fire community and these officials have great credibility.

A spokesman for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum defends the group's strategy. John Kyte says it's only natural for companies that make deca to form alliances with fire-safety organizations and firefighters' groups.

John Kyte: Frankly, we have a product that we believe has been beneficial to them that is under global attack.

Deca has been banned in Sweden.

After lobbying from environmentalists and industry groups in the U.S., nine states considered deca bans this year. Two — Washington and Maine — passed restrictions.

In St. Paul, Minn., I'm Sasha Aslanian for Marketplace and American RadioWorks,

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...