Who Is Nancy Beck, and Why Shouldn’t She Be in Charge of Consumer Safety?

The former chemical industry lobbyist’s toxic trajectory through the Trump administration.

April 24, 2020

Justin T. Gellerson/New York Times/Redux

Early last month, the president of the United States nominated a toxicologist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical-safety office to head up the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency dedicated to protecting public health by making sure that the things we buy and use are free from dangerous chemicals and other hazards.

In a less dysfunctional political universe, the nomination would constitute an utterly unfrightening, and even welcome, bit of news. After all, who better than a toxicology expert with an EPA pedigree to lead the government agency that’s supposed to ensure our everyday products are safe?

Alas, that’s not the universe we occupy at the moment.

President Trump’s nominee to lead the CPSC, Nancy Beck, is no ordinary toxicologist. Prior to joining this administration’s ignominious iteration of the EPA, where she hit the ground running by rewriting chemical-safety rules to make them more business-friendly, Beck served for more than five years as senior director of the American Chemistry Council, the trade organization representing the interests of our country’s $765 billion chemical industry. The council likes to keep a relatively low profile, but if you’ve heard of it before, it’s probably because the group has spent almost 20 years doggedly trying to prevent cities from instituting bans on plastic bags.

If you’ve ever wondered what might happen if you put the former chief lobbyist for the chemical industry in charge of overseeing America’s consumer safety, we now have a big clue. While she awaits Senate confirmation for the CPSC post, Beck has been detailed to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the group of economists and other experts who consult with the president on matters of economic policy. It was in this capacity, apparently, that she pressured the EPA—where she is still, technically, employed—to further water down an already watered-down rule regarding PFAS, a broad class of dangerous and pervasive chemicals that are found in all manner of everyday products, from nonstick pans to raincoats. So good are PFAS at lingering in the environment—and the human body—that they’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals.” Actually, they’re probably inside you right now: One study found PFAS lurking in the bloodstreams, breast milk, or tissues of 98 percent of people who were tested for them. And they’re bad news: PFAS have been linked to cancer, abnormal fetal development, and dysfunction of the liver, thyroid, and immune system.

According to White House documents obtained and released by Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Beck was the driving force behind a White House attempt to weaken the final version of an EPA rule on PFAS. She even asked the agency to carve out a special type of loophole for importers of PFAS-tainted products. Back-and-forth correspondence between the White House and the EPA reveals how the former pushed the latter to create a regulatory “safe harbor” that would significantly ease restrictions on certain imports containing highly dangerous PFAS compounds that have already been phased out of U.S. production.

Senator Tom Carper

Associated Press

Last Friday, Carper wrote to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler outlining his concerns about Beck’s unseemly intervention. In it, the senator accused Beck of seeking to “make it more difficult for EPA to use its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to protect Americans from these harmful substances,” and he urged Wheeler to “resist these efforts and ensure the final rule is as protective as was originally envisioned.” The letter details a history of similarly themed meddling by Beck, dating back to her earlier days at the EPA. Taken together, Carper’s bullet points paint the picture of someone who has been working very hard over the years to ease restrictions on PFAS by chipping away, bit by bit, at the regulatory framework surrounding these incontrovertibly toxic chemicals.

By the way, don’t get excited: It’s not as if the Andrew Wheeler–led EPA has suddenly seen the error of its industry-coddling ways and done an about-face on PFAS. The tension between Beck and the agency in this instance doesn’t reflect any real philosophical difference. While the original rule on PFAS, drafted during the Obama administration, was a good one, it was never finalized; when Congress later demanded that Trump’s EPA sew things up, the agency had no choice but to comply. That’s when Beck seized the opportunity to make the final PFAS rule as industry-friendly as possible. The documents cited in Senator Carper’s letter reveal that she hasn’t been fighting the EPA; she’s simply been nudging it along.

“Once Congress set a deadline, the agency set about writing as weak of a rule as it could possibly get away with,” says NRDC’s Daniel Rosenberg, who focuses on federal toxics policy. “So it was already a rollback. Nancy Beck just kept pressing them for more.”

This is the person that Donald Trump believes is best equipped to protect U.S. consumers from being harmed by the products they bring into their homes: a person whose last private-sector job was protecting the interests of chemical companies, and whose current job in the public sector doesn’t appear to be all that different. The only potential upside to having Nancy Beck take a job at the Consumer Product Safety Commission is that she’ll no longer be working at the EPA. But by that point, it may not matter. She’ll already have left her toxic mark.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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