About a month ago (March 1, 2008) we brought you the story of how a highly reputable and knowledgeable scientist, Dr. Deborah Rice of the Maine Department of Maine Department of Health and Human Services, was bonced off of an EPA scientific advisory committee because the chemical industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), objected that she had a bias. How did they know? Dr. Rice, as part of her duties as toxicologist for the State of Maine, testified before its legislature that on the basis of a review of the scientific evidence she believed the deca congener of the brominated flame retardant PBDE should be banned. The Bush EPA, compliant as ever to industry wishes, bent over and Dr. Rice was relieved of her responsibilities on the committee. This was not unusual for the Bush administration. They have established their bona fides as genuine outliers in the way they interfere with science. No other administration has been as flagrant or as blatant or as shameless. Nevertheless it is a disgrace. Now it is also the subject of a congressional inquiry.
The inquirer is the tenacious John Dingle, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He and the Chair of the Oversight and Investigations of Subcommittee, Bart Stupak, have written the ACC a letter asking for detailed information on the role they played in the Rice affair and the reasons for their complaint to the EPA. In particular Dingell and Stupak want to know how the evidence of Rice’s lack of objectivity differs from the evidence for eight other scientists who have served on these committees that the ACC apparently had no object to (the eight named scientists are Robert Schnatter, James Klaunig, James Swenberg, Vernon Walker, Lorelei Mucci, Dale Sickles, Elizabeth “Betty” Anderson, Susan Borghoff, and Deborah Barsotti. Some have received funding from the chemical industry and some have also expressed opinions on chemicals being considered by advisory committees they sit on, although the opinions were those the ACC liked.
Dingell and Stupak also inquire into the relationship of ACC to one of the main scientific journals in the field of regulatory toxicology, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology (“RegToxFarm” in the trade), the official journal of International Society for Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology (ISRTP) which ACC helps to fund:
“Peer reviewed journals play an important role in shaping and informing scientific debate about the safety of consumer products,” Dingell said. “Our Committee intends to determine what influence the chemical industry yields over the scientific community and whether that influence is proper.”
“Americans rely on sound science to ensure the safety of everyday products,” Stupak said. “If that science has been compromised by industry, then the health and safety of the public is in danger.” (Press Release, Committee on Energy and Commerce, April 2, 2008)
The way this is framed — what makes Deb Rice different than the others? — is the right way to ask it. It turns out I know three of the eight named above and all are excellent scientists. There was every reason for them to be on the advisory committees they were on. They know their stuff, and although they have a different perspective than I do, that makes for a better conversation. Deb Rice is no different except they don’t like what she says.
John Dingell is another case. I might ask the same question about Mr. Dingell. Dingell represents the auto industry in Congress and is often called “dirty air Dingell” because of his stubborn opposition to clear air regulations. He is a tenacious investigator and has done some good and some harm. But in my not so humble opinion, he has no standing to lecture others on conflict of interest.
Just thought I’d mention it.