Today, thanks in part to the efforts of a single Virginia family, as many as 97 percent of Americans have toxic flame retardants in their blood. Deeply poisonous, and linked to cancer, genetic damage, and behavioral and learning difficulties, the prevalence of flame retardants, here and around the world, owes to the fact that these chemicals have been placed in many of the objects of daily life—in our homes, automobiles, and workplaces, even in our beds.
While the flame-retardant business has grown explosively and with tragic consequences, the world has yet to reckon with this morally challenged industry, which started taking off more than 40 years ago. Nor has the US government held manufacturers accountable for the original evil that spawned the proliferation of flame retardants: the monumentally unsafe business of adding lead to gasoline. Now, new research undertaken by The Nation reveals the startling connection between these two scourges to public health and the environment.
Meet the Gottwalds of Virginia, one of the 100 richest families in America and the most powerful shareholders in the Albemarle chemical company, based in Charlotte, North Carolina. In September 2016, Floyd Gottwald Jr. gave $50,000 to Trump Victory, a joint fund-raising committee for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, continuing a family tradition of Republican funding that goes back decades. Yet you’ve probably never heard of them. The Gottwalds keep a low profile—perhaps understandably, given that they’ve built their wealth by blanketing the planet in lead and flame retardants.
A deadly neurotoxin that never biodegrades, lead assaulted the public health throughout the 20th century, largely through its role as an additive to gasoline. When the United States began phasing out leaded gas in the 1970s, the Gottwalds pivoted to flame retardants. Often manufactured with the chemical element bromine, flame retardants are also extremely toxic products. But they have never been effectively regulated, much less banned, as lead eventually was—even though the banning of lead was scandalously delayed, as its manufacturers fought off regulation for decades with a mixture of outright lying, deceptive advertising, and the financial lubrication of elected officials (as I documented in an investigation for The Nation back in 2000).
Flame retardants have been identified not only as carcinogens, but as mutagens (i.e., agents that mutate genetic material). Many are now understood as first-class endocrine disrupters, implicated in a growing variety of learning difficulties, IQ deficits, and behavioral disorders, especially among the young, including hyperactivity and behaviors consistent with autism and, among the older set, diminished fertility, miscarriages, premature births, obesity, advanced puberty, thyroid hormonal problems in postmenopausal women, and an increased risk of ALS.