Cancer-Causing Chemicals Have More Friends in Congress than You Do (part 2)

In which a group of Senators pen fact-challenged letters on behalf of formaldehyde and styrene, currying favor with the chemical industry and undercutting government health agencies.

In my last post, I discussed how EPA was compelled by the collaboration of the chemical industry and Congressional Republicans to have its health assessment of formaldehyde reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – costing taxpayer money and delaying health protective actions -- and how the chemical industry then distorted the findings of the NAS to leverage a “rider” in the recently passed Omnibus spending bill requiring additional NAS review of EPA assessments – further delaying their completion. Industry is pushing for NAS reviews not only to needlessly delay assessments, but so it can use  the very notion of an NAS review to raise doubts about EPA’s credibility – regardless of what the NAS actually concludes. 

The other target of chemical industry’s efforts is the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  Since 1978, the NTP has been mandated by Congress to produce a biennial Report on Carcinogens (RoC), an authoritative list of substances that are either “known human carcinogens” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”  The listing of a substance in the Report on Carcinogens can signal to officials in the U.S. and around the world who are responsible for worker, environmental and public health that some action to restrict exposure to that substance may merit further investigation. Besides opposing adding particular substances to the Report on Carcinogens, the chemical industry’s broader agenda is to undermine the NTP’s status as an “authoritative body,” just as it is seeking to do with EPA.  

In its fight for formaldehyde, the chemical industry’s first gambit was to try to delay NTP reporting on the chemical. Cal Dooley, the public spokesman for the chemical manufacturer’s largest trade association, the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association), actually asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in December 2010 to suspend publication of the Report on Carcinogens until after the NAS review of EPA’s formaldehyde assessment was released. Then, four days after the NAS report’s release, he wrote to Secretary Sebelius, calling for the NTP to “substantially revise” its listing of formaldehyde based upon the NAS report.

But the NTP work went on as planned. The NTP issued its 12th Report on Carcinogens in June and listed formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen, based on extensive evidence that it causes nasopharyngeal cancer and evidence from studies of exposed workers supporting its link to myeloid leukemia. (2-page fact sheet here) The NTP also issued a six-page addendum to the formaldehyde listing, noting that it was consistent with both the EPA IRIS findings and the NAS review. The Report also listed styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based mainly on experimental evidence in animals. (1-page fact sheet here)

When the Report on Carcinogens was released, the chemical industry widened its campaign to discredit the IRIS program, to also include the National Toxicology Program.  In August, Cal Dooley met with Cass Sunstein, the Obama Administration’s “regulatory czar” and David Lane, Counsel to White House Chief of Staff William Daley. Dooley called for greater White House control over both the IRIS program and the NTP -- in other words, greater political control over scientific assessments of chemical industry products. Talk about politics trumping science! It seems to have worked. Immediately after that meeting, the White House began interfering with the EPA’s IRIS program, including holding up EPA’s planned release of its health assessment for TCE, and pressing the NTP to refer its Report to the NAS for review. 

The chemical industry also went to Congress to build support for legislation to require the NTP and the IRIS program to force the Report on Carcinogens listing of formaldehyde and styrene, and future IRIS assessments to the NAS for costly and time-consuming reviews. This was never intended to be free-standing legislation, however, because that would have attracted too much public attention and required members of Congress to take a public vote. Instead, industry sought a rider to the spending bill. Although no rider was included in the Senate version of the bill funding HHS, and the House Appropriations Committee never finalized its own bill funding HHS, when the final Omnibus package was released this month, the NTP rider was included.  What happened? Most significantly, two letters signed by a bipartisan collection of Senators – including several Democrats running for re-election in 2012 -- were sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, urging her to refer the Report on Carcinogens to the NAS for review. 

The Congressional letters are primarily based on two assertions – both false. First, the letters posit that that the NTP relied on EPA’s draft assessment of formaldehyde. In fact, the NTP assessment was conducted independently of EPA’s – a point the NTP made clear in its addendum to the Report’s formaldehyde listing. Second, the letters suggest that the NAS criticisms of EPA’s formaldehyde assessment by implication also “raise questions” about the NTP’s assessment. This is also false, since the two assessments are independent of each other and since the NAS only reviewed the EPA’s Because both of these premises are false, the whole basis for the Senators’ “request” that HHS Secretary Sibelius refer the Report on Carcinogens to the NAS – itself the basis for the rider that followed – has no merit. The Senators could easily have learned that their premises were wrong – they could have just called someone at the NTP – but instead they followed the chemical industry’s line. But due diligence was clearly not a priority for any of the letters’ authors or signers. And both letters contained additional errors and distortions.

The first letter was co-written by Ohio’s Senators, Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R). The letter also suggests that “new scientific findings” have emerged since the Report on Carcinogens was released in June that warrant modifying the report’s classifications of formaldehyde. In fact, no such scientific findings have emerged and the letter doesn’t identify any. The other signers of the Sherrod Brown/Rob Portman letter include: Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), John Tester (D-MT), Max Baucus (D-MT), John Boozman (R-AR), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Dan Coats (R-IN).

The second letter was written by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama -- the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Department of Health and Human Services -- and Mark Warner (D-VA).  Of the two, the Shelby/Warner letter is more blatantly inaccurate in its assertions. The Shelby/Warner letter says that the NTP finding regarding styrene is “contrary” to two recent assessments: a report “conducted by the European Union” and a study by a “’blue ribbon’ panel of epidemiologists.” Although the Shelby/Warner letter does not identify the EU report, we believe that it is a draft Risk Assessment Report prepared by Great Britain. However, the EU’s Scientific Committee on Environmental Risk provided independent external peer review of the draft British report and disagreed with its conclusion that styrene did not pose any concern for causing cancer in humans. The British report was never finalized.  And the “blue ribbon” panel report is nothing more than a review article of the existing scientific literature, not the type of original work used by the NTP. The NTP looked at the relevant underlying studies and made its own evaluation of the science, rather than relying on somebody else’s interpretation of what those studies showed. It is worth noting – although the Shelby/Warner letter doesn’t -- that the review by the “blue ribbon panel” was paid for by the styrene industry.   

Finally, both letters imply that the NTP’s process for its listing determinations was inadequate, and that the NAS process would be better. I’m willing to bet that not a single Senator who signed either letter knows the NTP’s process for considering chemicals for listing in the Report on Carcinogens. A listing is subject to four levels of review – by a panel of non-government experts, an internal panel of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), an interagency review panel, and a review by the NTP’s own Board of Scientific Counselors. Anyone, even a U.S. Senator, can read about the NTP’s review process on pages 8 and 9 of the Report (page 10 is a chart illustrating the process). It is hard to read those two pages and not feel angry, a little sick, and even embarrassed for the Senators who were willing to pander to the chemical industry and attack the NTP in these baseless letters. Of the Senators who signed these two letters, I am most surprised by Sherrod Brown. When he was in the House, then-Representative Brown was a champion for protecting the public from toxic chemicals and expanding the public’s right to know about exposure to such chemicals and their potential health risks. 

According to the Almanac of American Politics, “For many years, Brown has worn a self-designed lapel pin of a canary in a cage, to commemorate underground miners who were at risk back in the days before labor unions and government safety inspections.”  Anyone familiar with the history of toxic chemicals and health in this country knows that for many chemicals -- including  vinyl chloride, n-Hexane, hex chrome and asbestos -- industrial workers have been the “canary in the coal mine,” and that their illnesses, neurological problems, tumors and deaths have sent the early signals about the dangers of those chemicals. Maybe Senator Brown lost that pin somewhere between the House and the Senate.  He should look for it again, amidst the clutter on his desk to remind himself of his past concern for the health of workers in dangerous industrial occupations, and American families who bring the products made from those materials into their homes. 

The chemical industry is attacking information about the health risks of exposure to chemicals because that information can enable consumers to avoid dangerous chemicals and can lead the government to limit their use (remember, deeds, not words). If the industry had its way, nobody would ever say anything bad about a chemical. This simple imperative explains the decades-long history of the chemical industry’s Deceit and Denial of the harm caused by its products – from denying the harm caused by lead in paint and gasoline, to hiding evidence of brain cancers found in workers exposed to vinyl chloride, to fighting years-long battles to deny or downplay the harm caused by hex chrome, TCE, dioxin, asbestos, and many others.

That is the broader context with which to view the chemical industry’s efforts to discredit the NTP and EPA’s IRIS program, and it is critical to understanding the genesis of both the letters to Secretary Sebelius and the subsequent rider compelling a review of the Report on Carcinogens by the NAS.

Let me point out the obvious – disparaging and delaying health assessments of chemicals doesn’t make them any safer. People still get cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other diseases from harmful exposures to toxic chemicals. Industry’s see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach may be profitable, but its success comes at the expense of public health, and it costs lives.