Bernstein Crisis Management. Crisis response, prevention, planning, and training.

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2004 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 3,800+
Estimated Readership: 13,000+


Editor's Note: Every now and then I find a threat so urgent that it merits a special alert to my readers, separate from the regular distribution of this ezine. Please take a few minutes to read this now and, if it applies to you, take action!

Crisis Prevention Alert -- PBDEs
by Jonathan Bernstein

They have already been banned in Europe. Hawaii, Maine, New York and Pennsylvania are about to ban them, and California already has a partial ban. In laboratory tests, they have impaired brain development and been linked to hearing loss, delayed puberty, decreased sperm counts and alterations to ovary cell structure.

What are they? PBDEs -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

According to a major story which just appeared in U.S. News & World Report, "Each year the United States and Canada now consume about 70 million pounds of the (PBDE) compounds in three forms, called penta, octa, and deca for the number of bromine atoms each contains. Added to polyurethane foam, carpet padding, mattresses, computer and hair dryer casings, insulation, drapery, paints, and car parts, they permeate our environment--and have saved countless lives."

That's right, they've saved lives, because they are fire-retardants. But everyone from the EPA to Greenpeace are now saying that there's evidence PBDEs are the "next PCB," the insulating fluid and coolant banned for U.S. use in 1979. Because, besides their possible negative effects (there is major EPA research ongoing now), they filter into the environment and have been measured in very high quantities in human mother's milk. The levels in American mother's milk is 75 times higher than the average level in European women, where they have already been banned.

The reason for this special alert is the significance of this increasingly publicized threat on any of us who work for, or represent, any business which uses fire-retardants in its products, because most such businesses are currently using PBDEs. The epitome of effective crisis prevention is getting out ahead of a sensitive issue BEFORE it bites you. Soon, very soon, all fire-retardant businesses are going to be asked these type of questions by journalists - and,if they're publicly held, by individual and institutional investors.

  • Why are you still using PBDEs, even if it's legal in your location, given the body of evidence that they're dangerous?
  • Do you have a plan to use an alternative fire retardant, and when will you implement it?
  • Are you going to be alerting your customers about the PBDE danger from contact with your products?
  • What are you doing to protect your manufacturing employees, who must have constant exposure?
  • Do you plan any kind of product recalls?
  • What is the financial impact of switching to another fire retardant?
  • Will switching to another fire-retardant make your products less safe?

And guess who's going to calling next? In the U.S., members of the American Trial Lawyers Association, eager to establish that businesses continued to use PBDE despite knowing of the threat from widely published scientific literature, even if popular publications only recently published major stories.

If your organization or your clients may be using PBDEs, I advise:

  • Do a thorough Internet News Search for relevant literature, there's quite a bit of it. I've been tracking this subject for about two months and already have a sizeable file.
  • Hold a meeting of your crisis communications team(s) to discuss the potential impact on your/your client's organizations.
  • If you don't already have qualified experts in environmental law or crisis management PR, this would be a good time to find them.
  • Ensure that operational decisions regarding PBDE's are integrated very carefully with public relations and legal considerations.
  • Draft some standby statements now and ensure that your spokespersons are thoroughly educated about PBDEs.
  • If you/your client is being proactive and switching to alternative fire retardants, consider making that a selling point to make you stand out, positively, from your competition.

In some organizations, you may fight an uphill battle against those who don't want to bother with change before it's forced on them. Show them the growing body of evidence -- and a few dozen back issues of Crisis Manager -- if that's what's needed to get them motivated before the cost of denial becomes devastating.


Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.,, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to

Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. is located at 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016. Telephone: (626) 825-3838.


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