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Washington physician accused of deception testified 3 times on Alaska bills

Richard Mauer
Robert Durell/Chicago Tribune

A physician accused last week by Washington state officials of failing to disclose his ties to the chemical industry played a role in scuttling legislation in Alaska that sought to prevent toxic chemicals from being used as flame retardants in clothing, furniture and plastics.

Dr. David Heimbach, the retired burn center director at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, testified at least three times in Juneau between 2010 and 2012 against bills to restrict chemicals suspected or proven to be hazardous, especially to children.

Washington's medical board said Heimbach invented tragic stories of children burn victims in his testimony in Alaska and other states, and portrayed himself as a neutral physician when in fact he was on the payroll of the manufacturers of chemical flame retardants. The civil charges, brought by the staff of Washington's Medical Quality Assurance Commission, could result in Heimbach losing his license as a surgeon and physician.

"It was all rather appalling to watch how gullible our representatives were, and some of the senators who voted against it," said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics and an advocate of the legislation.

Bills to restrict or eliminate toxic flame retardants in Alaska died in legislative committees in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

Now there's another one. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, introduced the latest version of the legislation, Senate Bill 151, in January. After advancing from the Senate Health and Social Services Committee in February, it still has two committees to go before it can reach the Senate floor, and then House committees and the House floor would await. With only a month to go for the 28th Legislature, the path for the bill appears insurmountable.

Miller has been trying for years to get a bill passed. She and other advocates say the chemicals, added to furniture foam and electronics, among other products, are at best, of marginal value in protecting people against burns. At the same time, the chemicals increase the risks of cancer and other diseases for people who sit in the furniture or who put out house and office fires. Unborn children are particularly vulnerable, Miller said.

Heimbach testified against bills introduced by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, in 2010, 2011 and 2012. At the Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Feb. 21, 2011, he had an exchange with Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, who would eventually vote against the bill. The recorded exchange, available on the Legislature's website, concerned an organization that opposed the bill, supposedly because more people would suffer serious burns if the chemicals were removed.

"Are you familiar with an organization called Citizens for Fire Safety?" Dyson asked.

"I am," Heimbach replied.

"Are they a credible organization?" Dyson asked.

"I think they are, yes," said Heimbach. "I think they're 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. Yes, I think they're credible."

Dyson didn't pursue the question further.

As it turned out, Washington state Medical Quality Assurance Commission charged last week that Heimbach failed to disclose to the Alaska Legislature and to the University of Washington, which runs Harborview Medical Center, that Citizens for Fire Safety paid him $120,000 a year in consulting fees in 2010 and 2011, and it covered his expenses for trips to testify before state legislatures.

The commission said Heimbach characterization of the organization was false.

"CFS portrayed itself to the public, state legislatures, and the news media as a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders interested in fire prevention and safety," the charges said. "This was not true. In fact, CFS was an organization created and entirely funded by the three large manufacturers of chemical flame retardants to 'promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry.'"

The three chemical companies provided $17 million to Citizens for Fire Safety between 2009 and 2012 to support its lobbying and political expenses, the Washington medical board charged. The charges didn't identify the companies, but Miller said they were Albemarle Corp. of Baton Rouge, La.; Chemtura Corp. of Middlebury, Conn.; and ICL Industrial Products of Israel.

The charges against Heimbach are an outgrowth of a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation which reported that American babies on average have the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies of any infants in the world.

"The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home packed into couches, chairs and many other products," the Tribune said. The first article in its series was about CFS -- "a phony consumer watchdog" -- and Heimbach.

In a 2012 letter to the Washington medical board, Heimbach's attorney said his client believed that flame retardants were better than burns. And he said Heimbach made up facts of burn victims in his testimony to protect the privacy of real patients.

"Dr. Heimbach has taken steps to protect the privacy of his patients while advocating on their behalf," said the attorney, John Harwell, of Manhattan Beach, Calif. "This kind of patient advocacy should be encouraged, not punished by an angry press with an agenda."

Heimbach worked as burn center director at Harborview until 2002 and was a faculty member of the University of Washington School of Medicine until he retired in 2011. Though he's living in Hawaii now, he still has an active license to practice as a physician and surgeon, the Washington medical board said.

The Washington board noted that legislatures three states -- Alaska, Washington and California -- proposed restrictions on chemical flame retardants. "The legislation was introduced after federal studies suggested that chemical flame retardants in clothing and furniture not only posed significant health risks but also were ineffective in burn prevention," the charges said.

Heimbach testified in opposition to the bills.

"Each time he testified, (Heimbach) told a compelling story about his treating a specific infant burn victim whose injuries he claimed were sustained from fabrics and products not treated with chemical flame retardants," the charges said. Heimbach later admitted making up the stories, but said they were embellishments of a real infant -- although not one he treated.

To the Alaska Senate, he said the baby was from rural Washington. To the California Senate, he said the baby was from Alaska.

In Alaska, fire retardant legislation was first proposed in 2008 by then-Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau. Her co-sponsor was Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage. The bill, House Bill 271, was referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee, where a hearing was held and the bill died.

The next version, Senate Bill 295, was introduced by Wielechowski in 2010. The bill made it through its first committee, where Heimbach testified about a baby and grandmother suffering severe burns. The bill died before it got to the floor.

Wielechowski had better luck the next session with Senate Bill 27. It passed the Senate 14-6 on April 4, 2012, but died in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, was the chairman then and also in 2008, when Doll's bill died there.

Rep. Olson said he didn't remember Doll's bill, but said Wielechowski's measure got to his committee too late in the session to be properly vetted. He did have time for a hearing April 12, 2012, when Heimbach testified -- his last words in Juneau before the Chicago Tribune expose. Rep. Olson also said he thought the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was about to issue regulations that would render Wielechowski's bill redundant.

Miller said the EPA had negotiated voluntary phase-out agreements with American manufacturers of some of the chemicals, but not all. And the EPA deal would have no effect on foreign-made products, while Wielechowski's bill required the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to block them.

Miller said she sought out Sen. Donny Olson to carry a bill this year because he's a physician and has constituents with high levels of chemicals in their bodies despite living in some of the most remote parts of the world, a legacy of military activity and far-off industrial pollution. Sen. Olson's bill is more narrow than the ones introduced by Wielechowski and mainly covers baby and children's products, Miller said.

Sen. Olson calls the bill the "Toxic-Free Children's Act." It bans products containing Tris, a widely used organic compound, and other chemicals.

"Developing babies and infants are at particular at risk as these accumulated toxics are transferred from mother to child in utero and through breast milk," Olson said in a prepared statement when he introduced the bill.

Wielechowski said he thought Sen. John Coghill, the majority leader and a Republican from Fairbanks, was holding up Olson's bill in the Judiciary Committee. Coghill voted against Wielechowski's bill in 2012. He didn't return a phone call asking for comment.

Karla Hart, a Juneau activist who worked with Wielechowski three years ago and takes the issue so seriously she has removed plastics from her own kitchen and upholstered furniture from her home, said she thought the makeup of the current Legislature should be conducive to Olson's bill.

"There are a lot of parents of young kids in the Legislature now, and you have a very pro-life Legislature. To my view, if you're pro-life, make sure the fetus isn't damaged in the uterus as well as not aborted," Hard said in a telephone interview. "When you put your newborn baby down in the crib, you shouldn't have to wonder if your baby is being exposed to toxins that will create cancer in 30 years.

Hart said it's been frustrating trying to get the bill through the Legislature. For the Wielechowski versions, she said she helped organize community, professional and tribal organization to pass resolutions in support of the measure, only to see it die in committee.

She said Heimbach played a "pivotal role" in the earlier defeats. But she said she wasn't particularly surprised by his unmasking. She said she ran the names of other witnesses who telephoned in to testify against the bill, and though they said they were Alaskans, she couldn't find them on voter roles. Some who provided addresses showed up as living in vacant lots.

"To me it seemed really unusual that somebody who had never registered to vote cared enough about this particular issue to call in and have a fictitious address," Hart said. "You put all that together and you say, well, what else is going on?"

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com