Money to Burn 

Although flame retardants may pose health risks, the chemical industry has spent millions blocking attempts to ban them in California.

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The evidence shows that California's fire safety standard may give someone an extra three or four seconds to flee an inflamed room, he added, "but it's not the flames that kill. It's the carbon monoxide and the increased smoke that these chemicals cause."

Leading the testimony in opposition to SB772, Sacramento lobbyist Joseph Lang said at that hearing that Leno's bill asked legislators to choose between the "fire safety of children and an alleged health risk which has yet to be scientifically documented."

Beyond securing witnesses for committee hearings, lobbyists also pay to entertain politicians. The California Manufacturers and Technology Association spent at least $6.1 million over four years, including at least $25,000 to entertain California politicians voting on the proposed regulations. Records show the association targeted four of the flame retardant bills.

In January 2007, the association spent at least $3,500 on food and drinks for a legislative reception six months before AB513, the proposed deca ban, failed its first vote on the Assembly floor. Just two of the thirteen assembly members who attended voted for the bill.

By law, legislators must report who donated funds and how much. Lobbyists and companies must disclose only which bills, issues, and administrative agencies were targeted and how much they spent. Records do not indicate how much is spent on each bill because the state doesn't require lobbyists to itemize payments and they do not volunteer the information.

Citizens for Fire Safety, a chemical-industry funded group "formed in response to threatening legislation across the country," according to its website, spent at least $2.2 million on "other payments to influence." In keeping with the minimum disclosure requirements, the group revealed only that it lobbied several state agencies that regulate flame retardants and flammability standards, including the California EPA and the Bureau of Home Furnishings, as well as the governor's office.

The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's leading advocacy group, spent at least $4.6 million in three months during the same time that AB706, Leno's attempt to ban halogenated flame retardants, failed on the senate floor.

In addition, the chemistry council spent at least $1 million on lobbying activities related to three other flame retardant bills, and donated $100,000 to legislators' campaigns.

Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, declined to say how the lobbying money was spent, noting only, "We abide by all lobbying requirements and complete all required government reports."

Goodman pointed out that the council, which represents more than 150 companies, engages in a wide range of California issues relevant to the chemical industry, not just flame retardants. AB706 was one of 13 bills targeted by the council that quarter, lobbying records show.

The latest bill, SB147, has one more chance to make it through the committee come January. Leno said the bill "lets the free market prevail" because it allows manufacturers of products such as furniture and nursing pillows to find alternatives to chemicals.

Whatever happens to SB147, environmentalists will continue to make flame retardants a priority next year, said Bill Allayaud, California director of governmental affairs for the Environmental Working Group. It's the same story whenever the safety of a chemical comes into question, he said.

"Every other week a more damning study comes out and industry keeps saying there's no evidence, or that for every study that says there's harm, there's one that says it's safe. That's completely untrue," he said.

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