Controversy over EPA removal of top toxicologist

04 March 2008

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is again being accused of caving to pressure from the chemical industry after letters obtained by an environmental lobby group revealed that the agency dismissed toxicologist Deborah Rice from a scientific review panel following protests from the American Chemistry Council. 

The ad hoc EPA committee, chaired by Rice, was charged with conducting a peer review on reference doses for fire retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. 

ACC argued that Rice should never have served on the panel because she had made public statements against deca, which is one of the four potential forms of PBDEs, or congeners, being examined. In response, EPA not only removed Rice from the panel in August 2007 but also deleted her name and her comments relating to all four PBDEs from the panel's report, which was released last year. 

Moreover, the agency will not consider the input of Rice - a former EPA toxicologist now with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention - when drafting its final report on the chemicals, due on March 28.

Industry concerns 

At issue is the fact that Rice testified before the Maine legislature as an expert witness in February 2007, suggesting that the state phase out deca because toxicity studies show single day exposure has a negative effect on the brain and nervous system. 

Beyond her public statements, ACC is also concerned about the fact that Rice has authored two recent articles about the chemical. The group argued that Rice had already made up her mind about deca, calling her a 'fervent advocate of banning deca' in a letter sent to George Gray, EPA's assistant administrator for research and development, on 3 May 2007. 

ACC spokesperson Tiffany Harrington told Chemistry World that the panel's leadership lacked the impartiality necessary to conduct a fair review of the data. 'We believe the EPA acted appropriately and consistently with the rules governing membership in scientific review panels,' she said. 'The chairperson's pre-existing bias advocating the ban of deca-BDE is not consistent with the scientific standards of an independent peer review.' 

"The chairperson's pre-existing bias advocating the ban of deca-BDE is not consistent with the scientific standards of an independent peer review"
- Tiffany Harrington

EPA is also defending its actions. Tim Lyons, the agency's deputy press secretary, said EPA's peer review guidelines specify that potential committee members can be considered conflicted if they previously made public statements indicating a particular position on the topic under consideration. 

Nevertheless, Rice neither acted as a lobbyist nor accepted money for her testimony. She was invited to address the Maine legislators because they were considering a bill to ban deca at the time. Though Rice has refused to comment on the agency's decision, a subsequent EPA review to examine her impact on other members of the committee found 'no evidence that the chairperson significantly influenced the other panellists,' Gray noted in an 8 January letter to ACC. 

Independence issue 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which obtained the letters through a Freedom of Information request, says that industry is taking aim at the handful of public service scientists who effectively counterbalance corporate interests on EPA safety assessment panels. 

'People who work at state agencies and have no financial entanglements with industry are an important source of external validation for EPA's science policy decisions,' Sonya Lunder, an EWG analyst, told Chemistry World. 'It is scary when we take the limited pool of independent public sector scientists and declare that they are the ones with the conflict.' 

"It is scary when we take the limited pool of independent public sector scientists and declare that they are the ones with the conflict"
- Sonya Lunder

The non-profit lobby group is worried that EPA's treatment of scientists like Rice will prompt them to avoid the political arena entirely. 'We will end up in a situation where we have policymakers in one room and the bench scientists in the other room,' Lunder warns.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which campaigns on health and food safety issues, believes that EPA's action violates the US Federal Advisory Committee Act. The law requires that panels be fairly balanced in terms of their viewpoints and that any final report be the result of independent judgment.

 'ACC asked EPA to do something illegal, which is to exclude someone for having a particular point of view,' says Merrill Goozner, an official with the CSPI. 'EPA caved to industry pressure and contravened the law.' 

The Rice incident has also now caught the attention of the US Congress. 'If this information is accurate, it raises serious questions about EPA's approach to preventing conflicts of interest on its expert scientific panels,' said California Democrat Henry Waxman, who chairs the House of Representatives' powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA 


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