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Committee Probes Industry Influence on EPA Panels « The Washington Independent

A congressional investigation is trying to determine whether ties between the chemical industry and the Environmental Protection Agency put children’ health at risk. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is examining whether chemical companies influence EPA panels that review chemicals for safety. The committee’s concern is that panels may be stacked with industry scientists who downplay the real risks of toxic substances.

The House committee is focusing on the American Chemistry Council, the main lobbying group for the chemical industry. This is a landmark investigation, says the Environmental Working Group, a non-partisan policy organization, because Congress doesn’t usually put trade groups under the microscope.

The Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigation is looking at several panels to find out whether industry bias played a role in weakening standards — especially dangerous to children, who are more vulnerable to toxic exposure. In the wake of this investigation, the EPA has convened yet another panel with scientists who have industry ties — a panel that is considering easing safeguards that protect children from carcinogens.

The congressional committee’s investigation was triggered by an EPA review panel on the fire retardant decabromodiphenyl ether, or deca, used in television casings, computer monitors and other electronics, which can be particularly harmful to children and infants. Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee first took action on the Chemistry Council when a toxicologist, Dr. Deborah Rice, was removed from the deca review panel at the council’s request. The EPA removed Rice as panel chairwoman after receiving a letter from the chemical industry group saying she had the "appearance of bias."

The EPA removed Rice as panel chairwoman after receiving a letter from the chemical industry group saying she had the ‘appearance of bias.’

The industry group had insisted Rice was biased because she had expressed concerns about the health risks of deca in the past. A toxicologist for the Maine Dept. of Health and Human Services, Rice had testified before Maine’s state Legislature on the dangers of the chemical. In a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, Dingell and Stupak wrote, "The ACC…seems to argue that scientific expertise with regard to a particular chemical and its health effects is a basis for disqualification from a peer review board. This does not seem sensible on its face."

It especially doesn’t seem sensible when those same peer review boards include scientists with ties to the Chemistry Council. Three panels included people who received funding from the council to research the chemical they reviewed; another panel was chaired by an individual whose employer was under contract by the council to question a key children’s health study that found problems with the chemical being reviewed.

When Rice was removed, and the industry scientists were allowed to remain, red flags went up.

The American Chemistry Council did not respond to repeated questions.

Rice’s research shows that deca can affect brain development and interfere with thyroid hormones, causing problems in the learning and motor skills of young animals, including humans. Deca has also been found to contaminate breast milk, which could put nursing babies at risk.

The chemical’s risk to children is one concern of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "[S]ome scientists have raised concerns that deca has been linked to learning disabilities in children," said a spokesman for the committee. "Some research suggests that younger children have higher levels of deca in their bloodstream than older children."

The manufacturers of the flame retardant found safe levels of exposure to be 57 times higher than the levels the EPA proposed. But, according to Rice, safe levels are 10 to 100 times lower than what the EPA suggested. In her testimony to the Maine legislature, Rice recommended banning deca altogether — which the state ultimately did.

The chemical industry has admitted an information gap regarding safe exposure levels for children, but left it at that, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

"We know that kids could be exposed to [deca] many days of their lives," said Lunder. "[The Chemistry Council] has said, we don’t know what safe levels for kids are. But there wasn’t any step to say, ‘Let’s fill that data gap.’"

Deca isn’t the only chemical being investigated that could be harmful to children. The Energy and Commerce Committee actually discovered Rice’s removal while looking into another chemical, Bisphenol A, and its use in products for infants and children. BPA is used to make plastic products, including baby bottles and the metal cans that hold baby formula.

Dingell says there is reason to believe that BPA presents risks to young children. "There is concern in the scientific community that this chemical, Bisphenol A, may be harmful, both to adults and children," said Dingell, "Some retail stores in Canada have pulled products from their shelves because it may harm adults. It would seem obvious that we would try to protect babies and infants from chemicals that may be considered dangerous to adults."

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is another such chemical, also used in plastics. As part of their investigation into the American Chemistry Council, Dingell and Stupak are looking at an EPA review panel that supported weakening regulations on DBP by a factor of three. The panel’s chair, Dr. Betty Anderson, is a chemical industry consultant whose employer, Exponent, was under contract by the American Chemistry Council to question a study finding health risks of DBP to baby boys. Exponent has defended the use of phthalates in children’s toys, backed by the Toy Industry Assn., according to the Environmental Working Group.

There have been other recent actions by the EPA to lower standards for child safety standards that could be cause for concern. Just after Dingell and Stupak launched their investigation, the EPA convened another panel with scientists who have industry ties. This panel is to review a controversial proposal that could weaken safeguards protecting children from carcinogens.

To protect children, EPA guidelines require the agency to strengthen health standards by a factor of 10 for chemicals likely to cause genetic mutations that can result in cancer. Now, an EPA panel is considering changing the rule so it applies only to chemicals that existing studies prove can cause cancer through genetic mutation. However, chemical manufacturers are not required to conduct such studies, so relatively few exist.

The panel’s chair, Bette Meek, works for the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a lobby group funded by chemical, drug and food companies. At ILSI, Meek sits on the same committee as several chemical companies — including Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Bayer and CropScience — who could benefit from weaker carcinogen standards. The EPA panel also includes Jerry Rice (not related to Deborah Rice), a former consultant for the American Petroleum Institute on benzene — a carcinogen that can cause genetic mutations. Rice is currently a consultant for a law firm that represents chemical companies that would benefit from weaker carcinogen standards.

The EPA’s own spokeswoman, Suzanne Ackerman, sounded surprised to hear that a panel would consider weakening safety standards meant to protect children from getting cancer. "This is news to me," Ackerman said. "EPA has always been ahead on carcinogenicity [and kids]."

The Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, which advises the EPA on regulations relevant to children, has already advised the agency not to support weaker standards. "We had written a letter to Administrator Johnson," said the committee’s chair, Dr. Melanie Marty, "and felt it was not scientifically justifiable and going the wrong direction from a public health policy standpoint for protecting people from exposure to carcinogens early in life."

If the Energy and Commerce Committee finds that ties between the EPA and chemical companies are affecting health standards, parents may indeed have something to worry about.

"Chairman Dingell believes that if industry has undue influence over the safety evaluation of chemicals, then the public safety is endangered," said a committee spokesman.

The Environmental Working Group says that government agencies endanger child safety by rolling back safeguards at the request of chemical companies. "The EPA must make decisions and implement policies without undue influence or pressure from the chemical industry by removing panelists with conflicts of interest from all advisory panels," Lunder said in a statement. "Until this is done, the external peer review of EPA’s decisions cannot be considered a valid process."

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