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EPA, American Chemistry Council Conspire to Remove Toxicologist Deborah Rice from Panel on Flame Retardant Safety

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed an award-winning neurotoxin specialist from a toxicology review panel in August, in compliance with a request from the industry lobby group the American Chemical Council.

Deborah Rice, currently an employee of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, was among five scientists to win an award from the EPA in 2004 for “exceptionally high-quality research” into lead exposure’s ability to cause premature puberty in girls. In her former position as a senior toxicologist for the EPA National Center for Environmental Research, Rice was one of the scientists involved in setting the agency’s guidelines for fish consumption as a way of limiting mercury exposure.

A specialist in neurotoxins, Rice has also extensively studied the low-dose neurological effects of the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) known as deca. That’s why when the EPA set up a five-member panel to review the safety of deca in early 2007, it selected Rice as panel chair.

PBDEs are flame-retarding chemicals widely used in the plastic housings of electronic items such as television sets. They are also used in automobiles, building materials and furniture textiles. Two PBDEs, known as penta and octa, were banned in 2004 after studies showed that they disrupted the nervous and hormonal systems and were accumulating in the tissue of humans and wildlife.

Prior to being banned, penta and octa concentrations in breast milk were doubling every four to six years, a rate of chemical accumulation not seen since the 1950s. After the ban, concentrations began to decrease.

Why Rice was a threat to the chemical industry

While the purpose of the EPA panel on deca was only to review and comment on the scientific research surrounding the chemical, the panel’s report would be used by the EPA to set new maximums for safe exposure.

The EPA has not yet released these new exposure levels, but if they are set low enough, it could mean an end to the chemical’s use in consumer products. This would be a major blow to the global chemical industry, which manufactures 56,000 tons of the substance each year, the majority of it for use in the United States and Asia.

In May, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, Sharon Kneiss, wrote a letter to an EPA assistant administrator objecting to Rice’s presence on the deca panel. Kneiss called Rice “a fervent advocate of banning” deca, who “has no place in an independent, objective peer review.” Having Rice on the panel, Kneiss said, “calls into question the overall integrity” of the deca review.

As evidence of Rice’s alleged bias, the American Chemistry Council pointed to comments she had made saying that deca should be banned due to its toxic and bioaccumulating nature.

This is nothing short of astonishing. What it means is that any expert who dares to say that toxic chemicals are dangerous and should be banned is kicked off the advisory panels. This is how the American Chemistry Council and EPA conspire to keep dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals on the market while pretending to be operating under the guidance of “scientific advisors.”

How the EPA censors scientists who oppose dangerous chemicals

Rice is fully aware of the dangers of the chemical. And like any scientist that operates with a sense of ethics, she wants to prevent further harm by seeing the substance banned. “We don’t need to wait another five years or even another two years and let it increase in the environment, while we nail down every possible question we have,” Rice said to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March 2007. Rice also testified before the Maine state legislature in favor of a ban on the substance.

One month after receiving the American Chemistry Council’s letter, top EPA officials met with representatives of the group and promised to act on their concerns. In August, the EPA dismissed Rice from the panel and removed all of her comments, as well as any mention of her, from the panel’s final report.

Yet a review of EPA documents reveals that all of Rice’s comments concerned only technical questions about the toxicity of deca. Rice suggested, for example, that the EPA consider the long-term cumulative effects of chemicals that exhibit similar toxic effects to deca.

The agency says it dismissed Rice because of “the perception of a potential conflict of interest.” But this rationale has been criticized as a double standard, given the agency’s willingness to allow industry advocates to remain on its panels. In other words, the EPA has no problem with “conflicts of interest” when it comes to allowing pro-chemical industry experts on the panel. They only invoke the conflict of interest claim when fishing for a way to remove an opponent of toxic chemicals.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, there were 17 members on seven EPA review panels in 2007 who had financial ties to the chemical industry, or who had publicly affirmed the safety of the chemicals they were reviewing. For example, an Exxon Mobil employee was allowed to serve on a panel reviewing the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide, which is manufactured by that company. The EPA has no problem with these obvious conflicts of interest. In fact, it seems to be doing everything it can to stack the panels with pro-chemical advocates who have financial ties to chemical manufacturers.

The EPA now serves industry, not the public

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, said the EPA’s double standard on conflicts of interest is “deeply problematic from the public interest perspective.”

“It’s a scary world if we create a precedent that says scientists involved in decision-making are perceived to be too biased,” she said. Under such rules, it is impossible for any honest scientist to express concern about toxic chemicals without being censored and fired from the panel. This is how the EPA wants the scam to work, of course: Eliminate all the opponents of toxic chemicals, and stack the panels with pro-chemical advocates.

Representative Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, expressed concern about the EPA’s acceptance of pro-industry panelists and dismissal of those who are critical of chemicals.

“If this information is accurate, it raises serious questions about EPA’s approach to preventing conflicts of interest on its expert scientific panels,” Waxman said.

Deca was formerly thought to be less dangerous that other PBDEs, because it did not appear to accumulate in human and wildlife bodies in the same way. But more recent research has indicated that when exposed to sunlight, deca transforms into different PBDEs, which do accumulate in the environment.

Like other PBDE flame-retardants, deca is known to affect brain development and interfere with thyroid hormones. These effects can lead to problems in the learning and motor skills of young animals, including humans.

Out of concern for these effects, both Maine and Washington have passed laws phasing out certain uses of deca and restricting others. California is considering similar laws.

What the EPA, FDA and USDA all have in common…

To any intelligent consumer, it’s quite obvious now that the EPA, FDA and USDA all now serve the interests of powerful corporations and have betrayed the American people they were supposed to protect. These agencies that once sought to regulate industry have now become the marketing branches of industry, abandoning the protection of the public and working on ways to maximize profits (or at least limit the damages when new toxicities are discovered).

That the EPA would so directly censor a scientist who simply sought to ask the right questions about the safety of deca is nothing short of outrageous. It is a further indication that the EPA now serves a new master: The Chemical companies. And under the Bush Administration, the EPA has gone to great lengths to censor scientists who dared to tell the truth about threats to our natural environment, from toxic chemicals to climate change. Now, telling the truth at the EPA is apparently enough to get you fired. The truth will no longer be tolerated. Only fictions will be heard at the EPA.

And soon, we’ll all be told the same lies now being repeated behind closed doors at the EPA: Toxic chemicals are good for you, and there’s no need to be concerned about the 10,000+ chemicals being used in consumer products today.

Recommended reading: The Hundred Year Lie by Randall Fitzgerald. The book will shock you.

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