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

The chemical industry’s war on science continues -- as far out of the public eye as possible.

Shortly before Congress left for its Christmas recess, it passed an “Omnibus” budget bill, to appropriate funds for numerous federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year.  But the bill did not just allocate funds, it also included a number of directives and strictures on how those funds should be spent.   These are commonly referred to as “legislative riders” -- matters of policy, not spending, that under a regular process should be considered in various committees, and then voted on by the House and Senate.   Riders are particularly targeted at the environmental and public health parts of the budget, and are intended to constrain departments and agencies -- such as preventing EPA from taking steps to curb toxic air or water pollution. Because those kinds of constraints are enormously unpopular, and would be difficult or impossible to enact in full daylight without a public backlash, polluting industries and their Congressional allies rely on the more shadowy process of enacting riders. 

For industry, there are several “benefits” to using riders to legislate policy:

  • By attaching them to “must pass” spending bills needed to keep the government in operation, there is an urgency to the process that ensures they will be less thoroughly vetted, and at least some riders will come to be accepted as part of the “price” of keeping government running;
  • Lumping dozens of riders together in a mass makes it virtually impossible to openly debate or vote on them individually;
  • The appropriations process in general, and the inclusion of riders in particular, is obscure and to a great extent conducted behind closed doors, which prevents the public from getting a clear view of what is really going on in Washington. 

This is another reason Congress’s approval rating was last measured at 9%.  But that’s not the concern of the chemical industry and other polluters and special interests.

This year, the chemical industry worked to get two key riders included in the Omnibus bill. Both riders are intended to further its ongoing campaign to undermine the integrity and credibility of government science programs charged with assessing the potential health effects of toxic chemicals.  Today’s post discusses the rider requiring EPA to have three of the chemical assessments conducted by the agency’s IRIS program reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  My next post will discuss a rider requiring the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to have its listing of formaldehyde and styrene in its biennial Report on Carcinogens reviewed by the NAS.  These riders represent an insidious trend of Congress taking its direction on science and environmental health policy from the chemical industry, rather than independent scientists who lack a financial interest in the question of whether some chemicals can cause cancer and other health problems. 

EPA’s IRIS program conducts health assessments of chemicals, and determines “acceptable” levels of exposure via air, water, food or soil.  IRIS assessments are not regulations themselves, but they are frequently used by regulators – at the EPA, in the 50 states, and around the world – to set health-based standards for chemicals.  Because an IRIS assessment can lead to new or strengthened protections from exposure to a toxic substance, the chemical industry has spent years fighting EPA efforts to complete those assessments, a process my colleague Dr. Jennifer Sass chronicled to great effect in our report, The Delay Game.  Two of the chemicals featured in that report are formaldehyde and styrene.

The campaign by the chemical industry to “protect” formaldehyde and styrene from a growing body of scientific evidence that they cause cancer in humans is now more than a decade old.  The condensed recent history on formaldehyde is this: EPA began an effort to update its initial health assessment of formaldehyde in 1998. In 2003, studies from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported evidence of an association between workplace exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia. In 2004, U.S. Senator James Inhofe demanded that EPA postpone its revision to the formaldehyde assessment until the agency could take into account industry data developed in response to the workplace studies. The Bush administration agreed.  In 2009 EPA again prepared to issue its revised assessment of formaldehyde.  In response, the industry trade group “The Formaldehyde Council” enlisted U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana – where people were sickened by formaldehyde in portable trailers after Hurricane Katrina – to place a hold on the Obama Administration’s nominee to be the head of EPA’s Office of Research and Development (which is where the IRIS program that did the formaldehyde assessment is located) until EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson agreed to send EPA’s draft assessment to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for review.  The Administrator ultimately paid the ransom and agreed to make the referral, which further delayed the agency from moving forward on the assessment – already underway for a decade -- for an additional two years.   

In April, the NAS released its report on EPA’s IRIS assessment of formaldehyde.   Although the report was critical of some aspects of EPA’s draft assessment, including its length, organization, and clarity, it did not dispute the central findings of EPA that there is strong evidence to support formaldehyde being a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer and some evidence, including from studies of people exposed in workplace settings, for formaldehyde being a cause of myeloid leukemia.  The NAS made specific recommendations for how EPA could improve the IRIS assessment, as well as recommendations for other revisions to its assessment approach.  The report noted that the draft assessment for formaldehyde “has been under development for more than a decade and its completion is awaited by diverse stakeholders” and stated it was “not recommending that the assessment for formaldehyde await the possible development of a revised approach.”  Nor did the NAS call for a system whereby it would oversee or review additional IRIS assessments.  In response to the NAS review of formaldehyde, Assistant Administrator Paul Anastas (whose nomination was held up by Senator Vitter) announced EPA’s intent to follow the recommendations made by the NAS, both for the formaldehyde assessment itself, as well as future chemical assessments. He proposed additional changes including the formation of a new standing peer-review panel of its Science Advisory Board, to review IRIS assessments.

Nevertheless, the chemical industry seized upon the NAS report and has used it ever since to support its claim that the IRIS program lacks credibility and cannot be trusted to competently assess the health effects of chemicals.  Congressional allies have been eager to help. Two House committees held hearings on the IRIS program – both framed around the industry talking points.  Cal Dooley, spokesman for the world’s largest chemical manufacturers called for Congress to impose NAS review of all draft IRIS assessments – something the NAS itself did not call for.  Industry-funded scientist Gail Charnley went further testifying that the solution for the IRIS program was “to get rid of it entirely and start over.” And stalwart formaldehyde champions Senators Vitter and Inhofe pitched-in with letters to EPA in May and September calling for the agency to cease issuance of additional IRIS assessments “of serious concern” (presumably meaning of serious concern to the chemical industry) pending further NAS review. The political pressure on EPA was enormous, as the chemical industry intended. EPA received no support from the White House, which itself followed industry’s script and pressed EPA to suspend issuing “controversial” IRIS assessments.

Thus, when the House Appropriations Committee finalized its appropriations bill for EPA in July a rider was included requiring EPA to send three of its assessments to the NAS for review.  However, although the bill was briefly debated on the floor of the House, it was pulled by House leaders before the IRIS rider could be debated or an amendment could be put to a vote. The Senate never considered or debated an IRIS provision.  A slightly modified version of the House rider was included in the Omnibus, requiring EPA to send three IRIS assessments to the NAS for review.  The ink was barely dry on the final rider before industry spokesman Dooley was waving it around and demanding that EPA withdraw its near-final IRIS assessment of dioxin -- which has been underway since 1985.

NAS reviews of chemical assessments are costly – about a million dollars on average – and they impose additional and unnecessary delay on updating of health protections for air, drinking water, and contaminated soil. In addition, they are a misuse of the NAS itself, which should be allowed to focus on larger scientific issues of the day -- as it has done in landmark studies including Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment, Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment: The Tasks Ahead, Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy, and Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children -- not repeatedly diverted by Congress on behalf of the chemical industry and put in the position of micromanaging every EPA assessment of chemicals that industry doesn’t like.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – the investigative arm of Congress-- issued its biennial report on federal programs that are at “high risk” of failure.   Three new programs were added to its list that year, and the IRIS program for assessing health effects of chemicals -- combined with the EPA’s failure to adequately evaluate the risks of new chemicals under TSCA -- was one of those added.  (The other two were the federal programs for regulating financial markets and medical devices).  The GAO highlighted repeated political and industry interference with EPA’s assessments – including formaldehyde, dioxin, and TCE -- leading to such extensive delay, and a growing backlog of hundreds of chemicals needing either updated or initial assessments.   Yet three years later, contrary to the recommendations of the GAO, and the NAS, that interference has increased, and serves to further undermine a vital program, with the chemical industry as the chief beneficiary.   

In my next post, I’ll discuss how the chemical industry leveraged the National Academy of Sciences’ review of EPA’s formaldehyde assessment into a collateral attack on an entirely separate and independent assessment of the health risks of formaldehyde and styrene by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and how a bi-partisan group of courageous Senators stood up to the government scientists at the NTP in defense of formaldehyde and styrene.