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Sarah Janssen’s Blog

The tragic truth about one doctor's lies revealed.

Sarah Janssen

Posted May 8, 2012 in Health and the Environment

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Over the years, I have sat and listened in state legislative hearing rooms to the testimony of a prominent, retired burn doctor, Dr. David Heimbach. During these testimonies, Dr. Heimbach recounted tragic stories of the infants he had cared for who were burned while they laid in their cribs.  The image of a badly burned baby suffering a painful death is something one doesn’t forget easily.  Though I didn’t believe “flame retardant” chemicals would have saved these infants, I believed that those babies existed and that their injuries and pain were real. As a mother of a young child, my heart ached for their families.

Turns out – they were all falsified.

The Chicago Tribune has launched a revealing investigative series on the deceptive tactics of the flame retardant chemical industry. Part One entitled, “Torching the Truth”, exposed one of the most outrageous tactics used by the industry to keep their unproven and toxic products in our home.  It turns out that Dr. Heimbach is on the payroll of a front group for the major flame retardant manufacturers. He was paid to travel the country and testify before multiple state legislators where he told these tragic stories about badly burned babies whose lives were cut short for a lack of flame retardants.  The tactic worked. No one questioned the veracity of this retired and respected physician and many legislators were swayed by his compelling stories - until now.

The Tribune reporters were not able to find any evidence that Dr. Heimbach had ever treated these burned infants, or that the babies even existed in the first place. Where there were records of a badly burned baby in the hospital where Dr. Heimbach worked, there was no evidence that the fire in their home had been started by a candle. Dr. Heimbach even admitted that the stories were “anecdotal”.

Dr. Heimbach claims his testimony was not in violation of any laws, but it is certainly a violation of medical ethics and the oath we take as physicians to uphold the standards of our field. Whatever form of the Hippocratic oath a physician takes upon graduating from medical school, that oath usually includes a statement about not putting personal profit or advancement above our duty to patients. This once revered doctor has strayed far from that oath by distorting the truth while being on the payroll of a front group for the flame retardant chemical industry. It is a clear conflict of interest and he was not forthcoming about that relationship nor that the babies he was describing were not real. He has violated the trust that the public places in their doctors. Behavior like this should not be tolerated or accepted as the way that business is done.

There are several states that are considering flame retardant legislation this year, and as outrageous and sad as this story is, I hope one good thing that can come of it is that lawmakers will no longer fall for these deceptions and lies.

I encourage you to read the entire Chicago Tribune story for yourself and to stay tuned for further reports in this investigative series.  In particular, check out the segment describing how flame retardants don’t really work and what you can do to reduce your own exposure.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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