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Suspicion Surrounds Firing of EPA Panel Chair

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Periodictable.jpg

In a surprising move last year, the Environmental Protection Agency fired the chairwoman of a chemical review panel six months after the panel took place. When Dr. Deborah Rice, a toxicologist for the Maine state health department, was thrown off a peer review panel at the request of the chemical industry, the EPA’s ethics were called into question

The unusual circumstances have sparked a Congressional investigation by the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. After Congress began its investigation, the EPA decided to run its own — an internal study by the agency’s inspector general

House Democrats, including the Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), have blasted the chemical industry lobby for wielding undue influence over EPA science. Yet, the chemical industry and the EPA stand by their joint decision to remove Rice from the panel.

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Environment_6001.jpg

Illustration by:Matt Mahurin

The fired chairwoman sat down with The Washington Independent for her first extensive interview since her dismissal almost a year ago. In a series of telephone conversations, Rice told TWI that the circumstances surrounding her removal were unprecedented. She talked about how stunned she was to be dismissed, why the EPA’s actions were unexpected and what consequences this could have for children’s health.

Rice, 61, had worked for the EPA for four years before joining the Maine Dept. of Health and Human Services. In 2004, she had been awarded one of the EPA’s most prestigious scientific awards — the Scientific and Technological Achievement Award — for her “exceptionally high-quality research” on the toxicity of lead. Regarded as an expert in environmental toxicology, Rice was asked by the EPA to chair a February 2007 review panel on the fire retardant deca (or decabromodiphenyl ether). The five-member panel carried out a standard review of the chemical’s safety.

Rice has served as an expert on more than 30 review panels and assessment committees for the EPA and other government agencies. In fact, since she was fired from the deca panel in August, she has served on another EPA review panel — for the metal thallium.

As Rice remembers it, she did nothing different on the deca panel than all her other panels. But she was later dismissed, after the American Chemistry Council, the lobby group for the chemical industry, wrote a letter to the EPA asking for her removal. The EPA charged her with conflict of interest because she had previously recommended the banning of deca to the Maine state legislature. (Maine has since passed the ban.)

Ahmed E. Ahmed, a pathology professor at the Univ. of Texas Medical Branch, was one of the panelists on the deca panel. Until TWI contacted him for this story, Ahmed was unaware that Rice had been fired.

He said that he did not notice Rice displaying bias. “If there was any [bias] I don’t know about it and I did not see it,” Ahmed said. “There was a scientific rationale for every decision we made.

During the panel, Ahmed said, he did not feel any undue influence or pressure coming from Rice as chairwoman. “Her comments were highly scientific in the context of the science available,” he said. Ahmed also said that he didn’t notice anything unusual about this board. “Everyone was presenting his side of expertise into the concepts we were discussing,” he said, “not something unexpected or politically motivated or anything.

Herbert Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, has been a colleague of Rice’s since the 1970s. Both studied lead toxicity and have appeared at many meetings and public discussions together. When the news of Rice’s dismissal became public, Needleman wrote a paper in the journal PLoS Biology titled “The Case of Deborah Rice: Who Is the Environmental Protection Agency Protecting?” In an interview with TWI, Needleman called the EPA’s decision to fire Rice from the panel “an outrage.”

“That’s an extraordinary step to take,” he said. “Someone who won a major award from the EPA for her science, asked to chair this committee — which is a big job that she took willingly — someone held in the highest regard by her colleagues. For [the EPA] to remove her is ridiculous. It’s outrageous.”

Though Rice is not an EPA employee, the union representing EPA employees — the National Treasury Employees Union — has condemned her removal. In a letter to the EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, the NTEU protested the EPA’s action:

The [American Chemistry Council's] letter illogically argues that Dr. Rice’s scientific publications should be seen as a ‘bias,’ rather than evidence of her scientific expertise. The chemical industry questioned Dr. Rice’s impartiality by wrongly claiming that her testimony before the Maine legislature earlier in 2007 advocated a state phase-out of deca-BDE. In fact, Dr. Rice’s testimony was of a purely scientific nature. Dr. Rice testified on available alternatives to deca-BDE in her official capacity as a scientific expert employed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the news about Rice’s removal became public, it added fuel to the fire for the Energy and Commerce Committee, already investigating the chemical industry’s influence over regulations.

“Dr. Rice’s dismissal from an EPA external peer review board at industry’s request,” said committee member Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), “raises serious concerns about EPA’s scientific integrity.” In a letter to Johnson, Stupak and Dingell noted that it appeared that the agency found Rice’s “scientific expertise” to be grounds for dismissal. “This does not seem sensible on its face,” they wrote.

Earlier this month, the EPA finalized its results from this panel — which examined the fire retardant called deca. Deca is found in TV casings, electronics and other household products. Research shows that deca is a neurotoxic substance that can affect brain development, causing problems in behavior, learning skills and motor skills in young animals, including humans. Known to contaminate breast milk, deca has also been linked to reproductive health problems, including increased rates of undescended testes, a risk factor for testicular cancer later in life. Other potential dangers include changes in menstrual cycle, low birth weights in babies and thyroid problems.

The politics surrounding the deca peer review panel could have significantly influenced the EPA’s final assessment of that chemical. The assessment does not reflect Rice’s comments at the meeting.

The American Chemistry Council and the EPA say that Rice had a conflict of interest because, in expert testimony to the Maine legislature in 2007, she recommended that the state ban deca. But the EPA and the ACC only came to this conclusion about Rice’s conflict after she had been chosen, the panel convened and her comments made public. The ACC didn’t even make its request until months after Rice’s comments were published online.

The panel was convened to review the scientific evidence for deca to help the EPA determine how safe the flame retardant is. The EPA decided this month to maintain current deca safety standards. If Rice hadn’t been dismissed, the outcome could have been different

Before Rice was asked to head the panel, she says, her Maine testimony had been public and her concerns about deca were known. Still, she was chosen to chair the EPA review panel for the same reason she was chosen to testify before the state of Maine — because of her expertise on deca.

Ordinarily, concerns over conflict of interest are sorted out before a panel convenes. Panelists are chosen for the EPA by an outside contractor and then the agency, environmental groups or industry groups have the opportunity to challenge people.

Rice, a former risk assessor for the EPA, says she has never heard of a panelist getting kicked off after the review takes place. “It’s unprecedented,” she said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened…To my knowledge, it’s never happened that after the meeting, after all the comments were in, all of a sudden the person is disappeared.”

The Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan research group, says this is suspicious because the EPA had first cleared Rice as a panelist and then changed its mind. “They didn’t have concerns, basically,” said EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder, referring to the agency. “They decided she was fine and they ran the whole meeting. Then, once the ACC asked them to [remove Rice], they did it.”

The EPA couldn’t provide any previous examples when panelists were dismissed after the fact. Press spokesman Jonathan Shradar said the inspector general’s investigation would probably reveal whether this has happened before. Shradar attributed the EPA’s decision to remove Rice months after the panel convened to “bad timing.” “It was probably just bad timing,” he said, “but that’s how the cards folded.

“We’re confident that the right process was followed in the conflict-of-interest situation,” Shradar said

Yet the process is what took Rice by surprise. Months after the review, George Gray, a Bush-appointed EPA science adviser, called Rice to tell her she was being removed. Gray is the assistant administrator of research and development. “I was never informed in writing by anybody at EPA,” said Rice, “So, it was very unprofessional.”

Rice was particularly surprised because the panel was no different from any other, she said. “It went off like any other panel,” she said. “My comments were not appreciably different from anyone else’s on the panel…It was just the normal agreements and disagreements that you find on any panel. I wasn’t an outlier.”

Each of the five panelists’ comments can be viewed here (pdf). At the ACC request, Rice’s comments were deleted — as if she had never appeared with the group.

The ACC says it requested Rice’s removal because of its commitment to independent scientific research. In a statement sent to TWI by spokeswoman Tiffany Harrington, the council talked about that commitment: “The chairperson’s pre-existing bias advocating the ban of deca-BDE is not consistent with the scientific standards of an independent peer review.”

Rice says she has no idea whether her dismissal has affected her career as a government scientist. “I would really have no way of knowing,” she said. “I got a lot of supportive emails from colleagues, but I really don’t have any way of knowing whether there’s somebody out there who invited me to do something and then said, you know, let’s not because she’s too controversial.”

In the case of the deca review panel, Rice maintains that the agency acted out-of-the ordinary. “It just really surprised me,” she said, “because it seemed like such an overreaction on the part of EPA.”

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