We’ve written before about the problems with conflicts of interest on EPA scientific advisory panels. In particular, we think scientists working for product defense firms, whose money comes from clients seeking to avoid regulation of their products, ought to be barred from such panels. Now, a group is raising concerns about bias on an EPA panel reviewing the brominated flame retardant deca – but the charge comes from an industry group that’s concerned about the state-government scientist chairing the panel, and the EPA has acceded quickly to their wishes.
Toxicologist Deborah Rice was appointed chair of an EPA scientific panel reviewing the chemical a year ago. Federal records show she was removed from the panel in August after the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for chemical manufacturers, complained to a top-ranking EPA official that she was biased.
The chemical, a brominated compound known as deca, is used in high volumes worldwide, largely in the plastic housings of television sets.
Rice, an award-winning former EPA scientist who now works at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has studied low doses of deca and reported neurological effects in lab animals. Last February, around the time the EPA panel was convened, Rice testified before the Maine Legislature in support of a state ban on the compound because scientific evidence shows it is toxic and accumulating in the environment and people.
Chemical industry lobbyists say Rice’s comments to the Legislature, as well as similar comments to the media, show that she is a biased advocate who has compromised the integrity of the EPA’s review of the flame retardant.
Here’s what ACC’s letter to EPA says about Rice’s comments to the Legislature (emphasis added):
With regard to the PBDE External Peer Review, BFRIP [the Brominated Fire Retardant Industry Panel] submits that genuine “appearance” issues exist relating to independence and objectivity of the peer review panel Chairperson. Earlier this year, the Chairperson testified before the Maine legislature, on behalf of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically advocating that the state mandate a phase out of deca-BDE. The proposal included a sales ban on televisions and other consumer electronics encased in plastic containing more than one-tenth of 1% of deca-BDE by January 1, 2012, as well as a sales ban on mattresses and upholstered furniture containing the same amount of deca-BDE by January 1,2008. See, Brominated Flame Retardants, Third Annual Report to the Maine Legislature, January 2007.4 As reported in various media, the Chairperson told state lawmakers in Maine that “there is no question in her mind that deca should be eliminated because it is a persistent toxin that accumulates in the food chain.” See Kevin Miller, DEP UrgesLegislative Ban on Fire Retardant, Bangor DailvNews, February 16. 2007, at B4.5 Further, the Chairperson has stated that she would choose an alternative flame retardant over deca-BDE – even if equally toxic -because “[t]he reason we are in this bind is because the industry doesn’t have to collect any data about the compounds they are putting into commerce.” Id.
So, it appears that the ACC thinks this is how things should work: if a scientist does a lot of research on a substance and finds it to be dangerous, he or she needs to then decide whether to a) honestly state her concerns to a legislator or reporter who asks about them or b) refuse to share the knowledge so as to preserve the right to serve on a government panel about the substance in question.
This is flat-out ridiculous. It’s inevitable that researchers who focus on a particular substance will arrive at conclusions about how much danger it presents to humans, and it’s highly likely that such conclusions will then translate into ideas about whether use of that product should be eliminated. For instance, I’d hate to think that thalidomide might still be in wide use because researchers who investigated its links to birth defects refused to tell reporters or government officials about what they’d found.
Besides, it’s strange for the ACC to be advocating such a narrow interpretation of bias when so many of the scientists whose research exonerates ACC members’ products are doing both a & b – serving on scientific advisory panels and also testifying at hearings and taking press calls. Perhaps ACC doesn’t really want to see EPA enforce this narrow interpretation consistently, but expects that the agency will fulfill the specific requests that come from the ACC and other industry groups.
In any case, if our rules against bias can be used to bar participation of scientists who are biased in favor of protecting public health, something is wrong.