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Thursday, 20 March 2014 09:03

Doctor Shilled for Flame Retardant Industry, Got Paid $240,000 and Didn't Disclose It

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aflameretarda(Photo: PressReleaseFinder)It's really not an unusual occurence in our world of corporate influence on public policy: A man or woman expert in a field gets a consulting fee from an industry accused of causing harm -- and just "coincidentally" the credentialed individual testifies before legislative bodies in support of a specific corporate position.

After all, just look at the climate-denying scientists who have received some sort of economic gain from the fossil fuel industry.

These relatively few members of the scientific community provide a tremendous public relations tool to corporations emitting carbon dioxide.  That is because the mainstream media presents almost all issues as a point/counterpoint debate, even if the vast majority of scientists have established that climate change is an established fact and threatens an ecospheric catastrophe.

The Chicago Tribune exposed one small part of "the expert for sale" scam a couple years back in an investigative report on a state of Washington surgeon. In a follow-up story last week, The Tribune reported:

In a stern rebuke of a noted surgeon, the state of Washington has issued disciplinary charges against Dr. David Heimbach, who told lawmakers misleading stories about fatally burned babies while testifying in favor of flame retardants.

Medical licensing authorities allege that Heimbach, whose activities were exposed in a 2012 Tribune investigation, fabricated testimony, failed to disclose his ties to the chemical industry and falsely presented himself as an unbiased burn expert when he was in fact collecting $240,000 from flame retardant manufacturers.

Heimbach's "misrepresentations to legislators, to burn experts, and to other doctors is conduct which harms the reputation of the profession," the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission wrote in charges filed this week.

In a Novermber 2013 commentary in The New York Times, Nikolas Kristof wrote:

Researchers this summer purchased 42 children’s chairs, sofas and other furniture from major retailers and tested them for toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q.’s and other problems.

In a study released a few days ago, the Center for Environmental Health reported the results: the toxins were found in all but four of the products tested.

“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame-retardant chemicals when they sit on a Mickey Mouse couch, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” a co-author of the study, Carolyn Cox, said in releasing the report.

These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery.

Kristof also notes of the toxic danger of fire retardants (particularly, as he describes, on furniture used by children): 

One risk is to firefighters, who are coming down with rare cancers. The larger danger is to people sitting on those couches. Retardants are released as dust from the foam and accumulate on the floor. The greatest risk is probably to pregnant women and to small children, who are also more likely to be on the floor.

These chemicals are frequently endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones, and mounting evidence links them to cancer, reproductive problems and other ailments. 

Obviously, when you have a surgeon who is a nationally known burn expert testify in favor of putting fire retardants on furniture, his word can have considerable impact on legislative bodies -- particularly because it can be presumed that a number of the elected officals are also receiving contributions from the chemical industry.

Dr. Heimbach was at one point officially representing an industry group with a feel-good salubrious sounding name (a common tactic among industries that cause public harm), Citizens for Fire Safety, according to The Tribune investigation:

In its charges, the [state of Washington medical] commission cites Heimbach's work for Citizens for Fire Safety, an organization the Tribune exposed as a front group founded, funded and controlled by the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants. When states considered laws that would ban or limit the use of flame retardants, Citizens for Fire Safety stoked the public's fear of fire and downplayed the risks of the chemicals. The industry has since folded the group.

Citizens for Fire Safety had described itself as a broad-based coalition with altruistic intentions: "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety." As a well-respected burn surgeon, Heimbach gave Citizens for Fire Safety credibility. At legislative hearings, he was the group's star witness.

The state of Washington medical regulatory agency will decide if Dr. Helmbach will retain his physician's license, The Seattle Times reports. Helmbach denies that he committed any violation of medical ethics by sometimes representing himself as an unbiased independent witness before legislative bodies.

Absent an investigative team such as The Chicago Tribune had assembled (and mainstream media investigations of anything are becoming increasingly rare because of their costs -- and the increasing hesitancy of corporate-owned media to hold corporations accountable), it becomes the task of alternative media and nonprofit investigative organizations to expose financial relationships between toxic industries and hired-gun experts.  

Yes, Helmbach asserts that he wasn't paid $240,000 to provide specific testimony. However, that is a bit like a politician saying that he or she was not given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions by Wall Street to vote in favor of a bank deregulation bill.  Yet, it is clear that the campaign contributions wouldn't have been given if the financial institutions knew that an elected official would be voting against their interests.

Such is the case with many experts who provide a contrarian view of scientific and medical findings. They offer an invaluable service to companies whose products pose a hazard to human health -- and to the planet.

Heimbach is just the tip of the iceberg.  He's the one that got caught.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.