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Originally published Monday, May 7, 2012 at 10:26 PM

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Retired UW burn doctor telling tales to promote fire retardants

Dr. David Heimbach, head of Harborview Medical Center's burn center for 25 years, is a star witness for manufacturers of flame retardants.

Chicago Tribune

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Dr. David Heimbach knows how to tell a story.

Testifying for California lawmakers last year, the retired Seattle doctor and former president of the American Burn Association drew gasps as he described a 7-week-old girl who was burned in a fire started by a candle while she lay on a pillow that lacked flame-retardant chemicals.

"Now this is a tiny little person, no bigger than my Italian greyhound at home," Heimbach said. "Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital."

The noted burn surgeon's passionate testimony made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty.

But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn't true.

Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn't exist.

Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.

Heimbach, head of Harborview Medical Center's burn center for 25 years, is not only a prominent doctor. He is a star witness for manufacturers of flame retardants.

His testimony is part of a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded furniture and electronics in homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.

Distorted findings

Today, scientists know some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in dust. That's why toddlers who play on the floor and put things in their mouths generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.

Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.

The chemical industry often notes a 1980s government study as proof that flame retardants save lives. But the study's lead author, Vytenis Babrauskas, said that the industry has grossly distorted his findings and that the amount of retardants used in household furniture doesn't work.

"The fire just laughs at it," he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meanwhile, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market and into homes without thoroughly assessing health risks.

Manufacturers repeatedly have withdrawn flame retardants amid health concerns since the 1970s. Some have been banned by a U.N. treaty that seeks to eliminate the worst chemicals.

Chemtura and Albemarle, the two biggest U.S. manufacturers of flame retardants, say their products are safe and effective, arguing they have been extensively evaluated by government agencies here and in Europe.

"Flame retardants provide an essential tool to enable manufacturers of products to meet the fire-safety codes and standards necessary to protect life and property in a modern world," John Gustavsen, a Chemtura spokesman, said in a written statement.

Heimbach, the burn doctor, has regularly supported the industry's position, but he now acknowledges his stories about victims were not always factual.

He told the Tribune his testimony in California was "an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn't under oath."

Trade association

In the past quarter-century, worldwide demand for flame retardants has skyrocketed to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009 from 526 million pounds in 1983, according to The Freedonia Group, which projects demand will reach 4.4 billion pounds by 2014.

As evidence of health risks associated with these chemicals piled up, the industry mounted a misleading campaign to fuel demand.

Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, the industry front group that sponsored Heimbach, describes itself as a group of people 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."

Heimbach summoned that image when he told lawmakers that the organization was "made up of many people like me who have no particular interest in the chemical companies: numerous fire departments, numerous firefighters and many, many burn docs."

But public records demonstrate that Citizens for Fire Safety is a trade association for chemical companies. Its executive director, Grant Gillham, honed his political skills advising tobacco executives. And the group's efforts to influence fire-safety policies are guided by a mission to "promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry," tax records show.

Its only sources of funding — about $17 million between 2008 and 2010 — are "membership dues and assessments" and the interest that money earns.

The group has three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, according to records filed with California lobbying regulators. Those three are the largest manufacturers of flame retardants and control 40 percent of the world market for these chemicals, according to The Freedonia Group.

On its website, Citizens for Fire Safety said it had joined with the international firefighters' association, the American Burn Association and a key federal agency "to conduct ongoing studies to ensure safe and effective fire prevention."

Both of those organizations and the federal agency, however, said that simply is not true. "They are lying," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Ineffective, risky

Since federal law makes it nearly impossible for the EPA to ban toxic chemicals and Congress rarely steps in, state legislatures from Alaska to Vermont have become the sites of intense battles over flame retardants.

The amount of flame retardants in a typical home isn't measured in parts per billion or parts per million. It's measured in ounces and pounds.

A large sofa can have up to 2 pounds in its foam cushions. The chemicals also are inside some high chairs, diaper-changing pads and breast-feeding pillows.

These chemicals are ubiquitous not because federal rules demand it. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has determined the flame retardants in household furniture aren't effective and some pose unnecessary health risks.

The chemicals are widely used because of an obscure rule adopted by California regulators in 1975. Back then, a state chemist devised an easy-to-replicate burn test that didn't require manufacturers to set furniture on fire, an expensive proposition.

The test calls for exposing raw foam to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds. The cheapest way to pass the test is to add flame retardants to the foam inside cushions.

But sofas aren't made of foam alone. In a real fire, the upholstery fabric, typically not treated with flame retardants, burns first, and the flames grow big enough that they overwhelm even fire-retardant foam, scientists at two federal agencies have found.

Nevertheless, lawyers since have regularly argued that their burn-victim clients would have been spared if only their sofas had been made with California foam. Faced with the specter of these lawsuits, many manufacturers began using flame-retardant foam across their product lines.

As a result, California has become the most critical battleground in recent years for advocates trying to reduce the prevalence of these chemicals in homes.

Star witness

When Heimbach walked into the California Senate committee hearing last year, senators were considering an overhaul of the state's flammability regulation — one that advocates believed would dramatically reduce the amount of flame retardants in homes.

The bill would allow manufacturers to choose the existing candlelike-flame test or a new one based on a smoldering cigarette, a far more common source of fires. Manufacturers could pass the new test by using resistant fabrics rather than adding toxic chemicals to the foam inside.

To maintain the status quo — and avoid a hit to the bottom line — chemical makers needed to stress that fires started by candles were a serious threat.

Heimbach, Citizens for Fire Safety's star witness, did just that.

He not only passionately described the fatal burns a 7-week-old Alaska patient received lying on a pillow that lacked flame retardants, he also blamed the 2010 blaze on a candle. In fact, he specifically said the baby's mother had placed a candle in the girl's crib.

Heimbach had told similar stories before, the Tribune found. In 2009, he told a California state Assembly panel that he had treated a 9-week-old girl who died that spring after a candle beside her crib turned over. "We had to split open her fingers because they were so charred," he testified.

In 2010, he told Alaska lawmakers about a 6-week-old Washington girl who died that year after a dog knocked a candle onto her crib, which did not have a flame-retardant mattress.

Harborview declined to help the Tribune confirm his accounts. But records from the King County Medical Examiner's Office show no child matching Heimbach's descriptions has died in his hospital in the past 16 years.

The only infant who came close in terms of age and date of death was Nancy Garcia-Diaz, a 6-week-old who died in 2009 after a house fire in rural Washington.

Heimbach said his anecdotes were all about the same baby — one who died at his hospital, though he didn't know the child's name. Contrary to his testimony, he said he had not taken care of the patient.

Told about Nancy, Heimbach said she probably was the baby he had in mind and emailed a reporter two photographs of a severely burned child, images he said he had used in a presentation at a medical conference. Medical records and Nancy's mother confirmed those pictures were indeed of Nancy.

But Nancy didn't die in a fire caused by a candle, as Heimbach has testified repeatedly. Fire records show the blaze was caused by an overloaded, overheated extension cord.

In his testimony last year, Heimbach stated the baby was in a crib on a fire-retardant mattress and on a nonretardant pillow. The upper half of her body was burned, he said.

But public records show there was no crib — she was on a bed — and no pillow.

Heimbach said that he couldn't recall who gave him that information but that Citizens for Fire Safety did not help craft his statements. He said the group has paid for his travel to testify and for some of his time, though he would not give a dollar amount.

Heimbach later said through his attorney that federal rules prohibit him from disclosing information that would identify a patient. When describing burn cases, he said, he follows standard protocol by "de-identifying" patients — that is, changing or omitting information to protect their privacy.

But in testimony at state hearings, Heimbach not only changed facts, he added new ones, such as candles starting deadly blazes and the lack of flame retardants — details that aided the chemical industry's position.

Retired last June

While heading Harborview's burn center, Heimbach also was a professor of surgery at the University of Washington until his retirement last year. He estimated he might have saved "hundreds if not thousands" of lives.

Heimbach was in charge of the UW Medicine Burn Center from 1977 until his retirement in June 2011. He remains an unpaid emeritus professor, with no teaching or patient-care responsibilities.

At least some of his testimony on behalf of Citizens for Fire Safety occurred while he was still employed by the UW.

The university requires faculty and staff to report and obtain permission for outside consulting work. The university has no record that Heimbach requested approval to work for Citizens for Fire Safety, UW spokeswoman Tina Mankowski said in an email.

"The testimony that Dr. Heimbach gave ... was not provided on behalf of the University of Washington or the UW Medicine Burn Center," Mankowski wrote. "His viewpoint and anecdotal information are his own. When requested, the University of Washington provides scientific-based evidence and comment to the legislature and other policymakers as it relates to burn prevention."

Before and since his retirement, Heimbach has worked with burn victims in Bhutan and helped train health-care professionals there in burn treatment.

Last year, he received the field's most prestigious award, the International Burn Foundation's Tanner-Vandeput-Boswick Burn Prize.

"I'm a well-meaning guy," Heimbach said. "I'm not in the pocket of industry."

Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times staff reporter Sandi Doughton.

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