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.