Chemical Industry's Influence at EPA Probed
By Lyndsey Layton
A congressional committee is investigating ties between the chemical industry and expert review panels hired by the Environmental Protection Agency to help it determine safe levels for a variety of chemical compounds.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, have demanded documents from the EPA and the American Chemistry Council to probe the roles of nine scientists who are serving on EPA panels or have done so in the past.
The lawmakers sent a letter to the chemical industry Wednesday, expanding a probe that began earlier this month.
"Americans count on sound science to ensure that consumer products are safe," Dingell said through a spokesman yesterday. "If industry has undue influence over this science, then the public's health is endangered."
Dingell and Stupak want to know how much the chemistry council has paid consultants, lawyers, scientists and a scientific journal in efforts to affect public policy.
"I don't remember the last time Congress investigated a trade association like this," said Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, which contends that the chemical industry has stacked EPA panels. "Maybe for the first time, we might find out the extent of industry influence. It's a landmark investigation and has called into question the ethics of the entire industry."
Tiffany Harrington, a spokeswoman for the chemistry council, said it supports independent scientific research and it will cooperate with the congressional request.
The lawmakers want to know why the EPA allowed the scientists in question to remain on expert panels but removed a public health scientist, Deborah C. Rice, from a panel at the chemistry council's request.
Rice chaired an EPA panel last year that reviewed safe levels for deca-BDE, a polybrominated diphenyl ether used as a fire retardant in television casings and other electronics. Deca has been found to cause cancer in mice and is a suspected human carcinogen.
As a toxicologist for the state of Maine, Rice testified before the Maine legislature about the health risks associated with deca. Maine and several other states - and this week, the European Union - have since banned the compound.
After Rice's panel completed its work, Sharon Kneiss, a vice president of the chemistry council, wrote to the EPA and called Rice "a fervent advocate of banning" deca who "has no place in an independent, objective peer review." The agency informed Rice that it was removing her from the panel, and it expunged her comments from the official record, even removing them from the EPA Web site.
The Chemistry Council "seems to argue that scientific expertise with regard to a particular chemical and its human health effects is a basis for disqualification from a peer review board," Dingell and Stupak wrote to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. "This does not seem sensible on its face."
At the same time, the EPA has allowed at least nine scientists who have received funding from chemical makers or expressed similar opinions about particular chemical compounds to remain on review panels, Dingell and Stupak wrote.
Among those scientists is Dale Sickles, who serves on a panel reviewing acrylamide. He received $93,000 from the manufacturer of the compound and $230,000 from its marketer. "I've been totally transparent throughout the process," Sickles said yesterday.
Four other scientists reached yesterday said that industry funding never influenced their research.
Scientists invited to participate in review panels are asked to disclose any conflicts or perceived conflicts. EPA guidelines say that conflicts do not automatically disqualify an expert but that the agency should make sure the panel has a balance of viewpoints.
Timothy Lyons, an EPA spokesman, said privacy issues prevent the agency from commenting on Rice or the scientists singled out by the congressional investigation. But the agency followed procedures in selecting panel members, he said.
Rice, who has declined to comment, has become a cause celebre among Bush administration critics, who say her case is symbolic of undue industry influence in public health regulation under President Bush.
"This is an administration that has put corporate interests before public health and safety, and ideological zealotry before sound science," Dingell said. "This disturbing pattern extends to EPA's peer review panels."