Swift Boating Science: Who Will Oppose the Chemical Industry's Pro-Cancer Agenda?

As discussed in my last post, the chemical industry, “Big Chemical,” has a pro-cancer agenda: to block any mandatory regulation to control the use of chemicals that cause cancer (at the federal or state level), and to prevent or discredit any assessment of a chemical that yields a determination of a risk of cancer.  Right from the outset I want to distinguish Big Chemical from those successful companies, including those that produce chemicals, whose business model promotes safer and sustainable products throughout the production and supply chain. Those 21st century businesses are moving forward and gaining ground, while the dirty old dinosaurs of the last two centuries continue to deny health risks and fight the government’s efforts to inform and protect the public.

Big Chemical has pursued its agenda with single-mindedness and zeal – purveying false testimony, misrepresenting science, and deceiving the public -- unrestrained by traditional notions of truth, ethics, or morality.  A revealing window into how Big Chemical operates to advance its pro-cancer agenda was opened via the recent four part series in the Chicago Tribune which focused on flame retardants.  It is essential reading for anybody interested in the intersection between politics, policy and public health.

Of course, this isn’t the first story to reveal the thinking and tactics of the chemical industry.  Who can forget the memo leaked a few years ago that revealed the industry’s “holy grail”: a pregnant mother who would speak about the great benefits of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A?  That same memo captured industry’s discussion of targetting poor and minority communities – and using “fear tactics,” to defend BPA -- an approach also used by the industry to promote and defend toxic flame retardants.  It is these kinds of stories that illustrate why the public does not trust the chemical industry on the question of safety of chemicals. And, really, why should they?

Its lack of credibility – particularly on the issue of potential health effects of chemicals found in everyday products -- is an ongoing -- and worsening -- concern for the chemical industry. So the industry has adopted an aggressive strategy to address its credibility problem: attack the credibility of independent, non-industry scientists.

The industry has adopted the Swift Boat strategy made famous during the 2004 Presidential Campaign, when Republicans attacked Senator John Kerry’s heroic military record, and is applying it toward two government programs that assess the health effects of chemicals: the EPA’s “IRIS” Program, and the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens.  The industry has launched an attack on the strength of these programs– the independence, integrity and credibility of their scientific work – as a means of undermining their standing with the public and, more importantly, Congress and the Obama Administration.  I have written about the IRIS program elsewhere, and here I’ll focus on the Report on Carcinogens.

The Report on Carcinogens (or “ROC”) is a biennial report, mandated by Congress, which provides the public a comprehensive, independent, peer-reviewed and publicly-reviewed assessment of the state of the science on chemicals that are “known” or “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in people (not just lab rats), in a short and easy-to-read summary.  The chemical industry hates the ROC and, typically, each time it is issued, the industry sues over one or more of the newly listed chemicals. To date, the industry has always lost those lawsuits.  The most recent report --the 12th-- issued last year was no different, with the industry objecting to the listing of formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen” and styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”  The styrene industry has sued to have its listing overturned.  This is not the first time that either chemical has been listed as a known or likely carcinogen by an authoritative body that assesses chemicals.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the scientific body of the World Health Organization, listed formaldehyde in 1987 and styrene in 1979.

The chemical industry spent the better part of 2011 waging a largely successful multi-million dollar propaganda war and lobbying campaign against the ROC, directed at Congress and the Obama Administration. The industry’s payoff was a provision slipped into a spending bill -- without public discussion or debate -- requiring the National Academy of Sciences (which really has better things to do) to “review” the NTP’s listings of formaldehyde and styrene.  One of the sorriest aspects of the affair was that the dirty work in support of this “budget rider” was done largely by credulous Senate Democrats who, one would have thought, would know better (and care more).

This year, the industry has its sights set on derailing the next ROC (the 13th if you are keeping count). That effort got under way at a recent “oversight” hearing jointly held by the House Science and Small Business Committees.  The hearing – I think it is fair to say – was primarily promoted by the styrene and formaldehyde industries.  But possibly because the House Republicans were nervous about publicly defending formaldehyde, the witnesses primarily spoke about styrene.  Not that it went that well for the styrene industry at the hearing.  The Democratic members who showed up – and particularly Rep. Paul Tonko and Rep. Brad Miller – were all over their Republican colleagues, the Republicans’ industry witnesses, and, in one case, the witness from the Small Business Administration’s Advocacy Office who was efficiently exposed as being little more than a mouthpiece for the styrene industry, with no scientific credentials whatsoever.  You can view the hearing here. And read a good account of it by Andy Igrejas of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families here.

Prior to the hearing, my NRDC colleague Dr. Jennifer Sass wrote a blog revealing the flaws in the industry claims against the ROC.  At the hearing, the mantra repeated by the Republicans and industry witnesses was the lack of sufficient opportunity for “public comment” during the process of chemical review for the ROC and the chemical industry’s allegation that the NTP program therefore lacks transparency, and makes questionable scientific decisions without sufficient oversight. In other words:  Big Chemical is swift-boating the integrity and credibility of the NTP scientists and staff. Let’s just quickly examine this claim, from both a factual perspective and a hypocrisy perspective.

The facts:

The process for preparing the ROC includes six opportunities for public comment – four stages of written comment and two stages for public hearings with comments.  The future 13th ROC will actually have more public comment and transparency than the process for the 12th Report, but industry still is not satisfied.  [See the Testimony of Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Toxicology Program] To get a sense of how the public comment process re the Report on Carcinogens works in real life, let’s take a look at the past few months, when the National Toxicology Program took public comment on its proposed process for developing the next Report on Carcinogens. The National Toxicology Program held two rounds of public written comment, as well as two opportunities for oral comments at public hearings.  Of the 23 sets of comments provided to the NTP, 22 were from chemical companies, chemical industry trade associations (manufacturers and users), and scientists or consultants funded by the chemical industry.  Several of these industry representatives commented twice, including Jim Bus of Dow Chemical -- who subsequently testified at the House hearing to complain about the lack of opportunity for comment. Steve Risotto, nothing if not diligent on behalf of the formaldehyde industry, weighed-in three separate times.  As David Byrne famously observed: “Say Something Once, Why Say it Again?”

So, how does the NTP process stack up compared to other scientific bodies that review chemicals and chemical policies?  You be the judge: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is another of the authoritative bodies that reviews scientific data and develops lists of cancer-causing chemicals, has no process for public comment, and no peer review.  The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has no opportunity for public peer review or public comment on its draft reports. The fact is, the National Toxicology Program’s process for developing the Report on Carcinogens is among the most open of any such assessment program in the country – leaving it vulnerable to repeated attack by the industries whose toxic products are being considered for inclusion in the report.

The Hypocrisy:

The charge that the process for developing the Report on Carcinogens lacks transparency comes from the same industry that seeks to pass and kill legislation in secret, advances its agenda behind closed doors, avoids at all costs open debate in Congress or elsewhere on the merits of its proposals, and, most important of all, never lets the matter of protecting public health actually come to the floor of the House or Senate for an up or down vote.  That’s why the industry’s strategy last year, this year, and every other year, is to have its special favors slipped into enormous “must pass” budget bills at the last minute without opportunity for public comment. Or have the White House stifle, stymie and suppress EPA, and the National Toxicology Program, from publishing reports. Rest assured, when the chemical industry talks about “public comment” it is not doing so out of interest in the voices or views of people not on the payroll of the chemical industry.  

 As most people already know, by instinct, experience, or both, Big Chemical doesn’t give a toss about public health or public comment, and it never has.  Delay is the name of the game with the chemical industry- so much so, that we wrote a report called the Delay Game.  It focuses on the other major chemical assessment program that the chemical industry despises – EPA’s IRIS program.  Our Delay Game report chronicled a long history of efforts by the chemical industry to stymie EPA’s attempts to assess hazardous chemicals using three examples - trichloroethylene (TCE), formaldehyde and styrene.  Just last year, EPA issued its final assessment of TCE – after 20 years of delay that needlessly prolonged human exposure. Not coincidentally, formaldehyde and styrene are the two industry sectors leading the fight against both the IRIS program and the Report on Carcinogens.  For another excellent example of the chemical industry’s efforts to hide information on the health effects of chemicals – and its hypocrisy in doing so – see this recent blog post by my colleague Richard Denison at EDF.

 Following the chemical industry playbook, the next step after the hearing was entirely predictable, and it came last week: the spokesman for the chemical manufacturers, the credibility-challenged Cal Dooley, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (the National Toxicology Program is housed within HHS) urging the Administration to “suspend” the 13th Report on Carcinogens.  Mr. Dooley’s letter had the nerve to state that “significant questions have been raised about the scientific credibility, integrity and relevance of the …Report on Carcinogens.”  He further smears the Report, and the NTP with inflammatory and unsupported references to “long-standing deficiencies in the scientific rigor of the ROC evaluation methods and review processes” and alleged “shortcomings that plagued the 12th RoC.”  In fact, no independent scientist not affiliated with or on the payroll of the chemical industry has leveled any such charges about the NTP or the Report.  The NTP has an oversight panel – the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) – that reviewed and approved of the 12th Report and the NTP’s proposed process for the 13th Report.  Mr. Dooley sites the rider that the industry successfully slipped into legislation last year as proof of widespread concern regarding the Report, without mentioning the fact that there was never any opportunity for public comment, debate, or vote on the rider. He also fails to mention that the rider was only two sentences long and neither expressed or revealed anything about the views or intent of any member of Congress, let alone the entire legislative branch.

 We can now expect that we will soon see a similar letter to White House Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein making the same demand.  The letter to the White House is important, because, when industry attacked the Report on Carcinogens last year, Secretary Sebelius held firm and defended her scientists – necessitating industry’s lobbying the White House directly.  Coincidentally or not, Sunstein’s lead staffer on these issues just recently left the White House to join Mr. Dooley at the chemical manufacturers’ trade association, the American Chemistry Council.   Next will come letters to Secretary Sebelius from various members of Congress, parroting Mr. Dooley’s letter and similarly calling for suspension of the 13th Report on Carcinogens.  Those letters will presumably be as inaccurate and irresponsible as those sent to Secretary Sebelius last fall by a number of key Senators. The letters from members of Congress will then provide the “justification” for including in some legislative vehicle a secret rider that will “temporarily” suspend the Report on Carcinogens, until the industry can get it eliminated permanently.

When subjected to the Swift Boat attack, Senator Kerry and the Democrats chose not to fight back – or not until it was too late.  I suspect that the scientists at the National Toxicology Program and EPA would welcome the opportunity to publicly fight back against the charges being leveled at their programs by industry-funded spokesmen, lobbyists and consultants, but they are almost wholly constrained from doing so.  And the White House, which should be defending its agency scientists from industry’s baseless attacks, has instead largely abetted the industry campaign, but done so behind the scenes, leaving few fingerprints.  Based upon its record to date, it is almost certain that, rather than push-back on the industry-led attacks, the White House will support the industry’s efforts. The truth is, if one were grading the White House on its defense of efforts by EPA and the National Toxicology Program to inform the public, and restrict the use of unsafe chemicals, it would get a gentleman’s D-minus.  

So, as the chemical industry launches its next round of swift boat attacks on the Report on Carcinogens and independent science, we need to know: Who will stand up and oppose the chemical industry’s pro-cancer agenda?