Toxic Chemical Review Process Faulted
By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2001; Page A02
Scientists and experts who advise the Environmental Protection Agency on a broad range of regulations governing toxic chemicals and air and water quality frequently have ties to the affected industries or other conflicts of interest, according to a new government study.
The General Accounting Office report found serious deficiencies in the EPA's procedures for preventing conflicts of interest and ensuring a proper balance of views among members of Science Advisory Board panels.
For example, four of the 13 panel members who studied the cancer risks of the toxic chemical 1,3-butadiene in 1998 had worked for chemical companies or industry-affiliated research organizations -- including one who had worked for a company that manufactured 1,3-butadiene, according to the report.
The GAO found similar problems on three other cancer-risk assessment panels in recent years. In one case, seven of 17 advisory board members worked for chemical companies or for industry-affiliated research organizations. Five other panelists had received consulting or other fees from chemical manufacturers.
"The regulatory process benefits from scientific and technical knowledge, expertise and competencies of panel members," the report stated. "However, the work of fully competent peer review panels can be undermined by allegations of conflict of interest and bias."
The study, requested by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, is scheduled to be released today. The GAO review comes at a time of growing concern about industry's influence over government rule-making and regulations.
"The American people expect decisions that affect environmental and public health regulations to be based on unbiased science," Waxman said, "but this GAO study reveals polluting industries are in a position to influence panel findings."
The director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board staff "generally agreed with the report's findings and recommendations" and pledged to improve operations and procedures, according to the GAO report. A spokesman for EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said late Friday she had not seen the report and declined to comment.
The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress in 1978 to provide independent scientific and engineering advice to EPA administrators on the technical basis for EPA regulations. The board often convenes peer review panels to assess the scientific and technical rationales underlying current or proposed EPA regulations and policies.
By law, the panels must be "fairly balanced" in terms of the points of view represented, and the advice should reflect members' independent judgment, without improper influences from special interests.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, two environmental groups, complained about the makeup of a subcommittee of an EPA scientific advisory panel assessing the health threats of the chemical dioxin. About one-third of the 21 panel members were scientists and scholars who have worked as paid consultants to the chemical industry.
According to the GAO report, EPA officials have failed to provide for adequate determinations of conflicts of interest when panels are formed and do not obtain sufficient information to evaluate conflicts of interest. The report said the EPA also fails to obtain appropriate information on financial disclosure forms, fails to review disclosure forms in a timely fashion and fails to adequately disclose potential conflicts of interest to the public.
Although the GAO did not assess whether the makeup of the panels affected the deliberations, the 1,3-butadiene panel recommended downgrading the significance of exposure to the synthetic chemical compound that is used in manufacturing synthetic rubber and nylon.
Based on studies that show high rates of leukemia in exposed workers, an EPA senior staff scientist had recommended that 1,3-butadiene be classified as a "known" human carcinogen. Although the panel did not reach a consensus, a majority of the panelists recommended that the chemical be classified as a "probable" human carcinogen.
A federal financial conflict-of-interest statute prohibits federal employees from acting personally and substantially in any "particular matter" that has a direct and predictable effect on their financial interests. However, an exemption allows special government employees serving on advisory panels to participate in matters that directly affect their employer's financial interest if the employer is not "singularly affected."
Routt Reigart, professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina and a former member of a scientific advisory panel that evaluated the use of data from human experimentation, said he was troubled that some members had conflicts of interest that were not readily known. "There is not a tight method of disclosing conflicts of interest," Reigart said.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said that what "we're seeing is advisory board panels -- stacked with industry mouthpieces -- acting like kangaroo courts to strike down important EPA initiatives."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company