Take Me Out to the Ballgame: the Chemical Industry Attacks Government Scientists, the White House Stays Quiet, Pressure Grows for National Chemical Reform

Every week or two’s worth of news in the area of toxics is its own microcosm of both what is wrong with our national system for regulating chemicals, and how pressure to fix it continues to build. 

Earlier this week, Fisk Johnson, the CEO of the consumer products company SC Johnson said in a speech (Inside EPA, subscription required) that “Your child has a better chance of becoming a major league baseball player than a chemical has of being regulated by EPA,” under TSCA.  He identified the problem as being, in large part, the lack of good information available about the hazards of chemicals in the marketplace, and the limited ability of EPA to regulate chemicals. 

It is exactly this problem that has led to both widespread calls for reform from “downstream” companies that use chemicals in their products – like SC Johnson -- and unilateral actions from large retailers and individual companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us and Staples to control the use of chemicals in products stocked on their shelves. The same problem has spurred unprecedented action in state legislatures across the country, and a groundswell of health, scientific and medical associations expressing concern about the health threat from toxic chemicals and calling for reform.

Meanwhile, the chemical manufacturers have escalated their well-funded war against independent science with the aim of blocking any action, proposal, statement, or suggestion by the government to address the dangers toxic chemicals pose to our health.  Failing that, “Plan B” is a campaign to discredit whatever scientists or regulators have done or said that calls into question the safety of any chemical.

On June 7th, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fired off a letter to the White House with a “legal analysis” of why the Administration should block EPA from releasing for public comment a proposal to list a small number of chemicals as “chemicals of concern,” something which it has the clear legal authority to do under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  The proposed list would include the endocrine-disruptor Bisphenol A (BPA), several phthalates, and a class of toxic flame retardants (PBDEs).  Each of those chemicals (or group of chemicals) has already been banned for certain uses, either in Europe, by Congress, or by one or more states. (Both the Center for Progressive Reform and EDF countered the Chamber’s letter with their own memos) The trade association of the chemical manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is one of the Chamber’s “Committee of 100 Members” that “recommend Chamber policy on association-related issues, propose programming, foster networking and collaboration, and encourage involvement in Chamber activities.” 

 The timing of the Chamber’s letter is curious. Why now? Although the White House review of EPA’s proposal is only supposed to take 90 days, it has been on ice for more than a year.  It is unclear whether  the Chamber just woke up a year later and decided  now was the time to offer its views, or whether the letter was newly solicited by opponents of EPA’s proposal, from inside or outside the White House.

The Chamber’s aggressive attack on science and public right to know here inside the beltway stands in stark contrast to what just happened in Maine. There, the (Republican-controlled) state legislature voted unanimously to modify its existing law – the Kid Safe Products Act --that requires the state to develop a list of chemicals of concern that are used in children’s products (and, for some of them, identify and substitute safe alternatives).   While the national chemical industry joined with the state’s Tea Party Governor to try and gut the law entirely, the Maine Chamber of Commerce negotiated a responsible compromise that kept the fundamental purpose of the law – to inform and protect the public -- intact. Seems like the Chamber of Commerce members in Maine – as opposed to their lawyers inside the Beltway – better understand how to protect their interests, while also protecting the public.

Just a few days later, on June 10th, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which houses the National Toxicology Program (NTP) released its 12th Report on Carcinogens. The report is mandated by Congress to be released every two years, to inform the public on the latest scientific understanding of what substances are known human carcinogens or reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.  The big news in this report was 1) that the NTP recognized formaldehyde as known to cause not only cancer of the airways, but also myeloid leukemia and 2) that styrene was identified as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The release of the report was also significant because it had been held up for four years due to unrelenting political pressure from the chemical industry. In the New York Times story about the report, the CEO of the ACC, Cal Dooley, attempted to discredit the report, saying that the chemical manufacturers he represents were “extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process,” -- earning a spot in the cynicism Hall of Fame. 

The chemical industry was particularly incensed that the Report on Carcinogens was released only two months after the National Academy of Sciences issued its own report that was critical of several elements of a separate assessment of formaldehyde being conducted by EPA.  That assessment is intended to identify actual levels of exposure to formaldehyde below which are presumed to be safe, not simply whether formaldehyde causes several types of cancer.  For weeks, the chemical industry has been overstating and distorting what the NAS said in its report, and using it as a weapon to attack EPA and other agencies whose job it is to assess the potential health and environmental impacts of toxic chemicals.

The NTP explained in an addendum why it was not necessary to change its own findings on formaldehyde in the wake of the NAS report.  The chemical manufacturers were so outraged that the National Toxicology Program didn’t follow industry’s script, that on Wednesday, Dooley sent a letter to the White House, declaring that the Office of Management and Budget “must take greater responsibility in the coordination and review of chemical safety assessments.”  In other words, the chemical industry wants the economists, lawyers and political appointees at the White House – over whom the industry appears to have greater influence -- to do a better job of supervising, second-guessing, and censoring, independent government scientists at EPA, the National Toxicology Program and elsewhere. Of course, the chemical industry included the usual window-dressing in its letter: “Protecting public health and safety must be our top priority…” which is the same thing the tobacco industry always said with great piety when waging its own decades-long war on independent science and “inconvenient truths” about the dangers of smoking. 

The chemical industry’s argument is that 1) the government’s release of congressionally-mandated, independent, peer-reviewed science is both “faulty” and “political” -- when it reaches conclusions the industry doesn’t like -- and 2) information released to the public about the health risks of chemicals threatens American jobs. Because it has remained silent, and blocked EPA’s proposal to identify chemicals of concern from moving forward – as well as several other efforts by EPA to collect more information about the use of toxic chemicals -- it is an open question whether the White House actually agrees with the chemical industry that the disclosure of basic health and science information to the public will “kill jobs” or that it is just too timid – particularly during difficult political times -- to defend independent science (and scientists) and the public’s right to know about the dangers of toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, everyone else this week was pretty much ignored the chemical industry and acted as though the unregulated use of thousands of chemicals in consumer products, -- found in our homes, schools, workplaces and supermarkets – is a problem that requires speaking out, and taking action. 

  • Delaware’s House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation banning the use of Bisphenol A in baby bottles, sippy cups and water bottles – as the state Senate had already done. .  You can see my colleague Jennifer Sass’s testimony in support of the legislation here.  That makes Delaware the 10th state to enact bans on some uses of Bisphenol A (joining the entire European Union, Canada, China, and a number of other countries). 
  • The American Medical Association adopted a new policy at its Annual Meeting this week supporting a ban on the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and food containers.  The AMA also called for “a shift to a more robust, science-based federal regulatory framework for oversight of BPA.”  And the AMA urged “that BPA-containing products with the potential for human exposure be clearly identified” Hmm.  Sounds like a serious expression of concern.  Who else needs to go first before EPA is allowed to speak?
  • Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, and Senator Frank Lautenberg, (E&E Daily, subscription required) Democrat of New Jersey convened bi-partisan discussions with stakeholders about TSCA reform legislation and Senator Lautenberg’s legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act.

As noted above, in the face of the chemical industry’s onslaught, the White House has done and said nothing to defend (let alone promote) the work of agency scientists. At least not publicly.  The President is very close with a number of the Captains of the Chemical Industry.  DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman is a member of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (you can see a nice picture of them sitting together recently here).  And it was just announced yesterday that Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris has been appointed to co-chair the President’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. 

I don’t know if either CEO has kids who dream (or used to dream) like mine do about playing baseball in the major leagues. But I hope they both occasionally dream of serious chemical policy reform, including TSCA reform, becoming a reality in this country.  That dream, if fulfilled, would benefit their companies – and the U.S. chemical industry – while providing greater health protection – and lower health care costs – for all Americans. Surely they know that the industry’s attacks on EPA, the chemicals of concern list, the National Toxicology Program, the Report on Carcinogens, and independent peer-reviewed science, are not the path to realizing that dream.  Surely they must have some say as to how their lobbyists in Washington play the game.  They could throw out the tobacco industry playbook.

If he hasn’t done so already, the President should take the opportunity the next time he is sitting down with those chemical company executives to defend EPA, the National Toxicology Program, and the other government agencies that are charged with conducting the best scientific assessments of toxic chemicals.  They are under massive pressure, scrutiny and attack from the chemical industry and its army of lawyers, lobbyists and scientists-for hire.  Along with their discussions about Jobs and Competitiveness, and Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships, he should take the time to push back on the absurd notion that being honest with the public about chemicals that cause cancer, or interfere with our hormonal systems, or persist in the environment and build-up in our bodies hinders our competitiveness, kills jobs, or stifles innovation. Who knows, they might even agree with him. Come on Mr. President, step up to the plate.