Burn Surgeon’s Testimony Tainted by Conflict of Interest

Clothing and furniture containing flame retardants have come under scrutiny because their chemicals may not retard flame but do pose health risks. Recently, proposed legislation in Washington state brought the issue additional attention when a burn expert testified before lawmakers that flame retardants do prevent fire casualties, despite the fact that he had been paid nearly a quarter million dollars as part of an industry campaign to promote their use.

The story, recounted in a 2012 series by the Chicago Tribune, continued last month when the newspaper reported that Dr. David Heimbach, facing disciplinary charges in Washington, had surrendered his medical license. State officials had charged that he not only lied about his objectivity, but had fabricated testimony.

It was a sad end to an ostensibly brilliant career. Heimbach, a burn surgeon, was head of the burn center at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for 25 years and had received an award from the Dalai Lama for his care of burn victims around the world.

In 2011, he testified before state lawmakers that babies had burned to death in fires fueled by furniture lacking flame retardants. The legislators were considering requiring furniture manufacturers to use flame retardants.

But Heimbach’s burned babies did not exist – he had made up their stories while serving as a consultant to a chemical-industry front that had paid him handsomely for his prominent name and voice in defending flame retardants, “despite research that shows they don’t provide any meaningful protection from home fires,” according to The Tribune.

The Tribune investigative series, “Playing with Fire,” reported how Heimbach’s testimony was only part of a campaign of deception by the industry to promote the use of flame retardants, which can migrate from furniture into human bodies, with numerous harmful effects.

Heimbach had told the paper that his testimony about babies dying in fires was meant to be only anecdotal. Later, through an attorney, he said he changed the facts to protect patient privacy.

Washington’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission brought the charges against Heimbach, citing his association with Citizens for Fire Safety. The Tribune showed that organization to be founded, funded and controlled by major manufacturers of flame retardants. “When states considered laws that would ban or limit the use of flame retardants,” said The Tribune’s latest story, “Citizens for Fire Safety stirred the public’s fear of fire and downplayed the health risks linked to the chemicals, such as cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.”

Citizens for Fire Safety described itself as 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’s image, of course, imparted additional credibility, for which, according to commission records, it paid him $240,000 in 2010 and 2011. He never mentioned that during the legislative hearings at which he testified. He claimed to be unaware of the coalition’s industry ties until reading about them in the Chicago Tribune.

After the Tribune published its initial stories, California, which had established the standard, widespread use of flame retardants in American furniture, changed its regulations to allow furniture manufacture without them. And the chemical industry front group that paid Heimbach? It folded.

Heimbach, whose surrender of his license excuses him from paying any penalties, has retired to Hawaii. A true example of a career going down in flames.

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