From: Robina Suwol
Date: 03 Mar 2002
Remote Name: 126.96.36.199
February 26, 2002
Environmental Law Institute
Scientific research at the Environmental Protection Agency is frequently driven by the industries the agency regulates, producing results that can jeopardize human health, according to the cover article in the current issue of The Environmental Forumr.
The article is written by toxicologist Linda Greer and attorney Rena Steinzor of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Responding to a political atmosphere in which critics often portray EPA decisionmaking as being based on "bad science" - such as last year's flap over more stringent regulations governing arsenic in drinking water - Greer and Steinzor accuse the agency of a different kind of bad science: research agendas that seem to serve the ends of regulated companies. "EPA science is dominated by self-interested industry research and peer reviewed by self- interested industry experts," the authors charge.
Their article presents case studies of changes the agency made in the toxicity ratings of vinyl chloride and dioxin, both notorious carcinogens. In the vinyl chloride case, EPA's Office of Research and Development decided to revisit the toxicity of the chemical for no apparent reason, Greer and Steinzor write. The office then selectively picked from among the evidence, ignored contrary findings, and dropped default safety factors to support the sharply lower toxic rating.
"Although no changes in existing regulations were made when EPA made its decision," the authors write, "the revised characterization of the hazards posed by vinyl chloride exposure will prove very valuable to manufacturers of the chemical now engaged in toxic tort litigation with workers who contracted brain cancer following exposure on the job, as well as companies still facing liability at Superfund sites contaminated by the chemical." Vinyl chloride is present at a third of federal Superfund sites.
The dioxin case study involves a decade-long reassessment of the chemical by the same office. As the office was about to conclude that dioxin is much more dangerous than its toxicity rating indicates, the EPA's Science Advisory Board, which peer reviews agency research, challenged the findings. But a third of the peer review board had industry funding connections, Greer and Steinzor say. They cite a study by the Center for Health and Environmental Justice that "fully a third of the panel members received organizational support from 91 dioxin-producing members."
The authors acknowledge that such apparent conflicts don't mean that the panel's findings are wrong, but they go on to question why the advisory panel insisted that EPA scientists had failed to include in their assessment supposed "beneficial" effects of the chemical. They also question the SAB panel's claim that dioxin is merely a promoter of cancer, not a cause - a claim that has little evidence to support it, Greer and Steinzor say. Greer and Steinzor conclude by placing their findings in the context of the recent decision by 12 leading medical journals to require all prospective authors to divulge conflicts of interest and to refuse publication where sponsors have control over release of the study results. They provide six suggestions for eliminating possible conflicts in EPA decisionmaking or better balancing competing interests where that is not possible.
In a related article in the issue, U.S. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R- Michigan) also criticizes how EPA conducts its scientific work, but from a different angle. The Chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards, he will be introducing a bill this spring to revamp the science function at the agency.
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