Politics has overtaken science at the EPA

Science depends on rigid observation and independent replication. So what happens when government bureaucrats — seeking to promote a political agenda while acting under the guise of protecting the environment and public health — systematically subordinate sound scientific principles to their own goals?

To answer that question, one need look no further than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where unelected bureaucrats, led by the chemophobic Lisa Jackson, have decided to bypass Congress and avoid the possible change in administration in 2013 by rushing to complete an unprecedented number of major risk assessments ahead of the 2012 election. Those assessments, which will evaluate the danger of various chemicals, will have far-reaching public policy ramifications.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Science often kowtows to politics in today’s policy debates.

Activist groups, sensation-craving media and congressional demagogues have a friendly ear at the EPA when they call for stringent restrictions on safe and useful chemicals and products — products with decades-long histories of harmless, widespread use. The attacks exploit public ignorance of the lack of science behind such terms as “endocrine disruptor,” “gender-bender,” and the latest mythological danger, “obesigens”— chemicals that allegedly can cause obesity. Another favorite distortion is the oft-heard claim that sperm counts, or “semen quality,” are declining due to chemicals in our environment. The only problem: Sperm counts are not declining. Cancer rates are declining, however, while longevity increases every year. Scientific groups worldwide confirm that disfavored chemicals like bisphenol-A are safe, but the message does not reach the activists, the media or the EPA.

In 2009, EPA bureaucrats issued a draft assessment of the toxicity of formaldehyde that warned of the chemical’s dangers. But the agency’s methodology was so shoddy that Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) called for a review by the respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as soon as the draft was made public. The NAS panel recently issued a sharply worded criticism of the EPA’s rushed methodology in evaluating formaldehyde’s toxicity. The NAS found the EPA’s practices to be in desperate need of “substantial revision” and expressed concern about “the persistence of problems encountered with [the Integrated Risk Information System] assessments over the years.” The NAS concluded that the EPA’s “criteria to identify evidence for selecting and evaluating studies” are fundamentally flawed.

This week, the EPA announced plans to improve the clarity and transparency of its risk assessment program. It says that in the future the data, methodology and decision criteria will be clearer and easier to understand. But given the serious problems in EPA methodology raised by the NAS, how can the EPA continue to conduct its chemical risk assessments in a business-as-usual manner? One reason is apparent: Politics has overtaken science at the EPA.

It’s easy — and politically correct — to call for chemical bans in order to “protect our children.” But from what, exactly? The Jackson-era EPA seems to love using the precautionary principle (“better safe than sorry”) to play whack-a-mole with various chemical “threats.” The ideologues blame chemicals for any ill that befalls us and for which medicine and science have not yet come up with a specific cause or cure. Their mantra is, “there are 80,000 chemicals in the environment and very few have been ‘tested,’ so how do we know they’re ‘safe’?” But most of these chemicals have been around for 50+ years, so why are we only now having more obesity or autism? But alarmism attracts media attention; logic doesn’t.

On June 30, Sen. Vitter and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) followed up on the NAS report with a highly detailed letter to Jackson asking her to restore “scientific integrity” to the risk assessment process.

“The economy and many of our fellow Americans are suffering,” the senators wrote. “To further perpetuate the problems of high unemployment and poverty without strong scientific and economic support for EPA’s calculated efforts would be unwise.”

Vitter and Inhofe deserve a response from Jackson — and so does the American public.

Gilbert Ross, MD, is the Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health, a public health, consumer-education consortium of over 380 scientists and physicians.

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  • Surly Curmudgen

    Some one at the EPA took DuPont money to ban the use of Freon 12. The Freon 12 fraud is not the only time the EPA has taken this nation to the cleaners. I would love to see a perp walk of EPA employees.

  • wagnert in atlanta

    The EPA’s reply to the Precautionary Principle — it’s better to be safe than sorry — is, “Why choose when you can be both?” If any allegation, no matter how outlandish, can be laid against any chemical/process/industry, shut it down while the EPA investigates, using the very best of dilatory voodoo science. Meanwhile, any benefit that might have accrued to the public disappears. Frequently, the public doesn’t notice, except to wonder why things don’t work as well as they used to, and the EPA gets to build their wall against the future another brick higher.

    Random thought: Can anyone think of an instance where the EPA found a suspect chemical harmless? Of their own volition, that is — not after being beaten over the head politically.

  • flips

    The Precautionary Principle says to chemical manufacturers, “Show us your chemical is safe when used as intended. Then you get access to the market.”

    The system supported by this author is, “Chemical companies get to do what ever they want with little public oversight until you can show us the dead bodies caused by our products.”

    A conservative position on this issue leans towards precaution and preventing harm BEFORE a chemical is strewn across our great nation and shown to be giving our kids asthma or cancer.

    • johno413

      Apples and oranges. There is nothing “experimental” nor is there only a little data regarding health effects and the substances the EPA wants to control.

      But the real point is that the EPA, which has always been politicized since the days of Carter, uses only the preferred pieces of data to reinforce their actions and not the totality provided by science. And they have the full cover of the climate catastrophists who scream “settled science.”

    • effinayright

      Don’t go trying to pass yourself off as rational here, pal. It’s YOU guys who are paranoid about Genetically Modified plants — even though they have been shown over and over to be “safe when used as intended”. But will you enlightened souls go near tham? Nahhhhh…you’ll just pay 50% more at your local Whole Paycheck store to buy “organic”, which have never been shown to have any health benefits at all.

      Further, your standard requires a manufacturer to have absolute knowledge, not just knowledge to a reasonable doubt, after exercise of due diligence. No person has such knowledge.

      And, of course, you morons deny that those flimsy toys you call EVs are actually safe for highway driving, even though the laws of physics say a crash between an EV and a plain old pickup truck would result in instant death for the EV passengers. But we all know your answer that that little problem — outlaw pickup trucks!

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  • johno413

    Didn’t you hear? It’s “settled science.” That’s is the way to shut down debate – a debate that never took place in the beginnin, following centuries old scientific protocol.

    That there is a fine line between governing and madness is not news. I live in a state where many of the electorate pride themselves on setting “progressive” milestones (Massachusetts). However, the madness surfaces when companies and interests try to, for example, build non-coal power plants. They are met with huge resistance that is costly and almost always leads to abandoning plans (noted exception, at least so far – Cape Wind). Biomass is dead. Large land based wind projects are dead. Nuclear is dead.

    My point: A morsel of evidence that fits the mantra that man is bad for the planet and animals and vegetation need protection gets full credibility. So, in a biomass debate, for example, an expert witness testifies that mercury can be found in effluent in a site at another location. Another witness testifies how bad mercury can be to life. Viola! All biomass will lead to death in the adjacent towns!

    Likewise, progressives with a “green” agenda in DC will quickly connect snippets of information in an effort to increase micro and macro control of the economy. All you have to do is hide behind harm to mankind, vegetation, or whatever.

    So, some “progressives” want nothing to do with most alternatives to coal. Perhaps their vision of the future involves solar panels everywhere and candles and horses to make up for the lost electricity generation. The progressives in the federal government want to force behavior and markets towards alternatives to coal that include biomass as just one option. That the two rely on the same emotions and cherry picking data, but are at odds, just proves the madness of it all.

  • Gringo Cracker

    This is old news. EPA has politicized science at least since the Clinton administration. A federal court in 1996 ruled the agency under Carol Browner cooked the books to support their predetermined conclusions and ordered them to vacate their “landmark” second-hand smoke regulations. Every large-cohort, long-term, high confidence study reported since then refutes EPA’s fraudulent ruling. But who cares, as long as the health-Nazis won?