Trust, chromium, and the EPA

Last week, the Center for Public Integrity and PBS released a story that adds another disturbing chapter to the saga of hexavalent chromium (or chromium (VI)), the carcinogenic chemical compound behind the Erin Brockovich story. That story ended with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) paying millions to residents of Hinkley, California, where the company’s operations contaminated local water supplies. In “EPA unaware of industry ties on cancer review panel,” David Heath and Ronnie Green report that this time, the focus is on widespread, low-level chromium contamination; by the Environmental Working Group’s estimate, more than 70 million people in the US drink traces of the substance each day.  Health and Green report that in late 2010, EPA scientists came to the conclusion that even small amounts of hexavalent chromium, such as those found in some tap water, may cause cancer.

EPA was set to announce this findings in 2011, “a step almost certain to trigger stricter drinking-water standards to prevent new cancers and death,” Heath and Green note. But then, on the advice of a scientific panel tasked with giving an unbiased review of chromium findings, EPA decided to wait at least four more years to release its findings, allowing time for the completion of new studied funded by the chemical industry’s trade association, the American Chemistry Council. Heath and Green report that the scientific panel advising the delay included three panelists who had worked on behalf of PG&E. In fact, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation found:

Three of the five panelists who urged delay had worked on industry’s behalf in the Hinkley court cases.

One of those scientists was retained by PG&E in the company’s ongoing chromium cleanup in Hinkley at the same time he was serving on the EPA panel.

Another scientist who urged the EPA to wait for the American Chemistry Council studies served as a consultant on those studies.

The story includes plenty of alarming details about the extent to which conflicts of interest are present on EPA scientific panels, despite EPA guidelines designed to guard against conflicts of interest. This can happen, Heath and Green explain, because EPA isn’t in charge of reviewing panelist candidates’ conflicts of interest – instead, it gives that job to private companies, which pick the panel and certifiy to EPA that “no unresolved actual or potential conflict of interest issues” persist. But the information these contractors collect about panelists isn’t disclosable to EPA, and the EPA isn’t supposed to override contractor decisions about panel makeup.

“The EPA said it set the system up this way to ensure impartiality,” Heath and Green write. “But, the Center found, this structure helps shield the very conflicts the agency aims to avoid.”

By failing to avoid such conflicts of interest, EPA risks getting advice that’s different from what it would get from a panel without such conflicts. But even if it were to get identical advice from conflicted and non-conflicted panels, it would still risk losing the public’s trust. Heath and Green touch on this issue:

The EPA’s Peer Review Handbook says peer reviewers should appear to be impartial, defined as not having anything that “may cause a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts to question the expert’s ability to carry out official duties without bias or influence.”

… “It’s bizarre,” [Union of Concerned Scientists director of scientific integrity Francesca] Grifo said of the EPA’s secretive screening process. “At its core it’s supposed to increase the public trust in the system. If it looks like the whole system is rigged to begin with, then why should a citizen trust it?”

The goal is not to determine whether the decision of someone who’s been employed or funded by an interested party is influenced by that relationship. The goal is to avoid conflicts of interest that can cause a reasonable person to question whether the system might be rigged.

Heath and Green reports that EPA may formally announce changes to the panelist conflict-of-interest screening process this week. Read their complete article here, and see why such changes are warranted.