Dr. David Heimbach knows how to tell a story.
Before California lawmakers last year, the noted Seattle burn surgeon drew gasps from the crowd as he described a 7-week-old baby 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,” said Heimbach, gesturing to approximate the baby’s size. “Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital.”
Heimbach’s passionate testimony about the baby’s death 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 is not just the former director of the burn center at Harborview Medical Center. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants.
His testimony, the Tribune found, is part of a decades-long campaign that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.
Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven’t declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.
People might be willing to accept the health risks if the flame retardants packed into sofas and easy chairs worked as promised. But they don’t.
The chemical industry often points to a government study from the 1980s as proof that flame retardants save lives. But the study’s lead author, Vytenis Babrauskas, said in an interview 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.
Other government scientists subsequently found that the flame retardants in household furniture don’t protect consumers from fire in any meaningful way.
Chemtura Corp. and Albemarle Corp., the two biggest U.S. manufacturers of flame retardants, say their products are safe and effective, arguing that 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.
‘I WASN’T UNDER OATH’
Heimbach, the burn doctor and former president of the American Burn Association, has regularly supported the industry’s position that flame retardants save lives.
In February, his testimony to a Washington state Senate committee helped kill a bill to ban chemicals known as TRIS in children’s products such as car seats and changing pads. Heimbach cast flame retardants as fiscally prudent – because people in lower socioeconomic circles make up a larger share of burn victims and are more likely to depend on taxpayers for medical care.
“I believe he had an effect. He testified in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and that is where the bill was gutted,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director for the Washington Toxics Coalition, which advocated for the legislation.
Heimbach did not mention the burned infant who has figured so prominently in his previous testimony. He now acknowledges that stories he told lawmakers elsewhere 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.”
Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, the industry front group that sponsored Heimbach and his vivid testimony about burned babies, 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 actually 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 only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, according to records the organization filed with California lobbying regulators. Those three companies are the largest manufacturers of flame retardants and together control 40 percent of the world market for these chemicals, according to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based research firm.
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. “They aren’t working with us on anything.”
After inquiries from the Tribune, Citizens for Fire Safety deleted that passage from its website.
Gillham, the executive director, declined to comment. Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products also declined to answer specific questions about the group.
‘THIS IS HORRIBLE’
When Heimbach walked into the California Senate committee hearing last year, the stakes had never been higher for flame retardant manufacturers.
Senators were considering an overhaul of the state’s flammability regulation – one that advocates believed would dramatically reduce the amount of flame retardants in American homes.
The bill would allow manufacturers to choose the existing candle-like flame test or a new one based on a smoldering cigarette, a far more common source of fires than candles. 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.
With Citizens for Fire Safety’s Gillham watching from the audience, Heimbach 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 committee 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 girl from Washington state 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 that no child matching Heimbach’s descriptions has died in his hospital in the last 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 Monroe.
In an interview, 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 was probably the baby he had in mind and emailed a Tribune reporter two photographs of a severely burned child, images that 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 repeatedly testified. Fire records obtained by the Tribune show the blaze was caused by an overloaded, overheated extension cord.
“There were no candles, no pets – just the misuse of extension cords,” said Mike Makela, an investigator for the Snohomish County fire marshal’s office.
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 resting on a bed – and no pillow. And, Makela said, flame retardants played no role in the pattern of her burns.
Fire authorities, Heimbach said, “may know more about it than I do, but that was the information that I had.”
Heimbach said 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.
The details of his statements, he said, weren’t as important as the principle. “The principle is that fire retardants will retard fires and will prevent burns,” he said.
Later, Heimbach said through his attorney that federal rules prohibit him from disclosing information that would identify a patient. He said that when describing particular burn cases, he follows standard protocol under the rules by “de-identifying” patients – that is, changing or omitting identifying information to protect their privacy.
Nancy’s mother, who asked that her name not be used, said she never granted Heimbach permission to use her daughter’s photograph.
“Nancy’s memory is sacred to us,” she said. “My daughter deserves respect. She lived such a short time and she suffered a lot. This is horrible.”
Heimbach was head of Harborview’s burn center for 25 years; he 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. In 2009, the Dalai Lama presented Heimbach an award for his pioneering care of burn victims around the world.
“I’m a well-meaning guy,” Heimbach said. “I’m not in the pocket of industry.”
When Heimbach testified last spring in California on the bill that could have significantly reduced the use of flame retardants, he didn’t tell lawmakers he was altering facts about the burn victim. Only when asked by a senator did he reveal that Citizens for Fire Safety paid for his trip there.
When it came time to vote, the senators overwhelmingly sided with Heimbach and Citizens for Fire Safety, sticking with the furniture standard based on a candle-like flame.Olympian reporter Brad Shannon contributed to this report.