WASHINGTON — A House committee opened an investigation Monday into potential conflicts of interest in scientific panels that advise the Environmental Protection Agency.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee cited the case of eight scientists who were consultants or members of EPA science advisory panels assessing the human health effects of toxic chemicals while getting research support from the chemical industry on the same chemicals they were examining.
In two cases, EPA advisers were employed by companies that made or worked with manufacturers of the chemicals being evaluated. the committee said.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the committee's chairman, said such conflicts appear to be in stark contrast to EPA's decision last summer to remove a public health scientist and expert in toxicology, from a panel examining the health impacts of a flame retardant because of critical comments she made about the chemical.
The American Chemistry Council, the industry trade group, had called for the removal of Deborah Rice, a toxicologist from Maine, as chairman of an independent EPA panel assessing the health risks from "deca", a flame retardant in electronic equipment, after she urged the Maine state legislature to ban the chemical.
"The routine use of chemical industry employees and representatives in EPA's scientific review process, together with EPA's dismissal of Dr. Rice raises serious questions with regard to EPA's conflict of interest rules and their application," said Dingell in a letter Monday to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.
Rice, an employee of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, was never alleged to have any monetary interest associated with deca and her dismissal "seems to argue that scientific expertise ... is a basis for disqualification," the letter continued.
"We will be reviewing the letter and we will respond appropriately," said EPA spokesman Timothy Lyons.
The letter, also signed by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee, demanded documents related to Rice's ouster, as well as records related the appointment of scientists with chemical industry ties.
Rice's removal, as chairman of the deca chemical review board "does not seem sensible on its face" given the EPA's acceptance of scientists with ties to the chemical industry and even to companies who make the chemicals being reviewed, the congressmen wrote.
Among the appointments questioned:
- An employee of Exxon Mobil Corp., who served on an expert panel assessing the cancer-causing potential of ethylene oxide, a chemical also made by Exxon Mobil.
- A participant in a panel examining the risk to humans from a widely used octane enhancer in gasoline, who was employed by an engineering company working with makers of the chemical and major oil and chemical companies.
- A scientist who served on a panel examining the health impacts of ethylene oxide, a component in various industrial chemicals, who received research support from Dow Agro, one of the chemicals' manufacturers.
The House committee questioned a case where a consultant to an EPA review panel, promoted his research on a chemical while he also prepared the chemical industry's public comments on the cancer-causing potential of the same chemical. Also cited was a case where a scientist who, while a consultant to an EPA review panel, promoted his own industry-supported research arguing the chemical was not a carcinogen.
In light of Rice's removal, Dingell and Stupak asked the EPA about the appointment of a Harvard University epidemiologist to a recently convened panel reviewing the possible cancer risk from acrylamide, an industrial chemical used as a thickener but also found in some foods. They said that the epidemiologist on a number of occasions has said the exposure to acrylamide through food does not appear to pose a cancer risk.
The examples cited by the House committee were included in a report last month by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group, that said its investigation found that among seven external EPA review panels, it found 17 reviewers with potential conflicts of interest.
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