Greenwash of the Month: Chemical Industry Front-Groups You Should Know About

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The chemical, pesticide, and other industries have a long history of using their lobbyists and public relations firms to create industry front groups.  These front groups are paid to serve as purported independent analysts, while in reality they are nothing more than undercover proxies for dirty industries. Industry needs these phony front groups because public awareness of their history of crimes and lies means no one trusts their claims about their products’ safety or benefits.

So, when studies pile up about harmful chemicals that threaten our health, chemical companies point to their front groups’ “independent” reports that show the opposite. The front groups don’t need much evidence for their claims – they need just enough to create a smidgen of doubt, and to give reporters a story with conflict. As Anna Lappe describes in her book, Diet for a Hot Planet, the food industry (like other industries) learned its tactics from the tobacco industry.  She cites a 1969 tobacco industry internal memo, that stated: “Doubt is our product.  It is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.  It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

As front groups continue to rely on these tactics, it’s important to remain skeptical.  We’ve written about some front groups before (including some that defend the plastics industry and others). But recently, we noticed that there are three front groups that have been particularly active in promoting and defending three toxic chemicals that CEH has been focusing on:: bisphenol-A (BPA), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and methyl iodide (MeI).

Below is a rundown of these three front groups, to keep you aware and informed about some of their sneaky tactics. 

1.  STATS- This organization claims to be “a non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service that aims to be a resource on the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media.” In fact, STATS is an arm of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group founded by right-wing former Fox News commentator Robert Lichter with funding from far-right religious conservatives Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. STATS has worked for corporate PR projects for the asbestos industry, promoted formula over breastfeeding, and conducted a phony study promoting Fox News. Both CMPA and STATS have been funded by right-wing foundations known as backers of dozens of right-wing front groups and “think tanks” that conduct climate change denial campaigns, pro-GMO food campaigns, and numerous other anti-environmental projects.

Trevor Butterworth is a chief STATS “expert” and author of their recent “report” claiming that the real science showing the safety of BPA has been kept from Americans. Butterworth has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and no scientific training, A recent report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed his underhanded tactics and ties to the chemical industry’s broad-based campaign against BPA restrictions, yet Butterworth’s reporting continues to get uncritical attention by most mainstream media.

2. Citizens for Fire Safety (CFFS)– A flame retardant industry front group we’ve written about before, the financial backing and underlying motives of this so-called “citizens” group can be traced directly to Burson-Marstellar, the giant global public relations firm that represents major chemical and oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil and Monsanto.  Last spring, CEH  had first-hand experience with  CFFS “Account Coordinator”Jason Sabo.  Sabo called various CEH ally environmental health organizations asking for their support, claiming that we at CEH had recommended that he contact them—an outright lie!    (Sadly, our buddy Mr. Sabo has left his work with CFFS. We wish him better luck in grad school!).

CFFS has employed a number of assertive schemes in order to defeat proposed bills that would ban or limit chemical flame retardants in commercial products.  In 2009, CFFS flew young burn victims to Sacramento to testify at the bill’s hearing—successfully moving the discussion away from chemical safety to Leno’s new callous reputation they had now constructed.

Adding fuel to the fire (no pun intended), a recent investigative report by Environmental Health News revealed that the chemical industry spent at least $23.2 million over the past five years to lobby California officials and donate to campaigns in an effort to defeat bills that would have regulated flame-retardants.  Whether through funding pseudo-public interest front groups, or lobbying firms, the flame retardant and chemical industry has money to burn.

3.  The Alliance for Food and Farming– A front-group who stealthily tries to keep its real members under wraps, is actually made up of mostly California-based farm and pesticide groups.  The Alliance has a history of promoting “conventionally-grown” pesticide-laden crops, and fighting government regulators, and a longstanding attack on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list.

Members of the Alliance have also been fighting for several years to legalize the pesticide methyl iodide, a carcinogen so potent, it’s been used to induce cancer in lab rats.

Publishing fake studies on seemingly trustworthy (but actually self-created) sites like safefruitsandveggies.com, the Alliance attempts to contest the scientific studies that link pesticide residues to a myriad of health problems, including birth defects, nerve damage, and cancer. Undermining valid pesticide hazard studies is one of the industry’s most influential tools.

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Ali manages the website and coordinates the online communications of CEH. She works with the communications and development staff to create messaging strategies and public education content for CEH’s supporters and online audience. A Bay Area native, Ali attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received a B.A. in Sociology and Cultural Studies. This allowed her to live abroad in Argentina, where she studied Latin American history and learned valuable Spanish language skills. Ali is thrilled to be part of an organization that advocates for healthy communities so effectively.