GAO says Toxic Chemical Review Process Faulted: Scientists on EPA Advisory Panels Often Have Conflicts of Interest
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Source: Washington Post
Toxic Chemical Review Process Faulted
Scientists on EPA
Advisory Panels Often Have Conflicts of Interest, GAO Says
By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2001; Page A02
Scientists and experts who advise the Environmental Protection
Agency on a broad range of regulations governing toxic chemicals
and air and water quality frequently have ties to the affected
industries or other conflicts of interest, according to a new
The General Accounting Office report found serious deficiencies in
the EPA's procedures for preventing conflicts of interest and
ensuring a proper balance of views among members of Science
Advisory Board panels.
For example, four of the 13 panel members who studied the cancer
risks of the toxic chemical 1,3-butadiene in 1998 had worked for
chemical companies or industry-affiliated research organizations --
including one who had worked for a company that manufactured
1,3-butadiene, according to the report.
The GAO found similar problems on three other cancer-risk
assessment panels in recent years. In one case, seven of 17
advisory board members worked for chemical companies or for
industry-affiliated research organizations. Five other panelists had
received consulting or other fees from chemical manufacturers.
"The regulatory process benefits from scientific and technical
knowledge, expertise and competencies of panel members," the
report stated. "However, the work of fully competent peer review
panels can be undermined by allegations of conflict of interest and
The study, requested by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), ranking
Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, is
scheduled to be released today. The GAO review comes at a time
of growing concern about industry's influence over government rule-
making and regulations.
"The American people expect decisions that affect environmental
and public health regulations to be based on unbiased science,"
Waxman said, "but this GAO study reveals polluting industries are
in a position to influence panel findings."
The director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board staff "generally
agreed with the report's findings and recommendations" and
pledged to improve operations and procedures, according to the
GAO report. A spokesman for EPA Administrator Christine Todd
Whitman said late Friday she had not seen the report and declined
The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress in 1978
to provide independent scientific and engineering advice to EPA
administrators on the technical basis for EPA regulations. The
board often convenes peer review panels to assess the scientific
and technical rationales underlying current or proposed EPA
regulations and policies.
By law, the panels must be "fairly balanced" in terms of the points
of view represented, and the advice should reflect members'
independent judgment, without improper influences from special
Earlier this year, Greenpeace and the Center for Health,
Environment and Justice, two environmental groups, complained
about the makeup of a subcommittee of an EPA scientific advisory
panel assessing the health threats of the chemical dioxin. About
one-third of the 21 panel members were scientists and scholars
who have worked as paid consultants to the chemical industry.
According to the GAO report, EPA officials have failed to provide for
adequate determinations of conflicts of interest when panels are formed
and do not obtain sufficient information to evaluate conflicts of
interest. The report said the EPA also fails to obtain appropriate
information on financial disclosure forms, fails to review disclosure
forms in a timely fashion and fails to adequately disclose potential
conflicts of interest to the public.
Although the GAO did not assess whether the makeup of the
panels affected the deliberations, the 1,3-butadiene panel
recommended downgrading the significance of exposure to the
synthetic chemical compound that is used in manufacturing
synthetic rubber and nylon.
Based on studies that show high rates of leukemia in exposed
workers, an EPA senior staff scientist had recommended that 1,3-
butadiene be classified as a "known" human carcinogen. Although
the panel did not reach a consensus, a majority of the panelists
recommended that the chemical be classified as a "probable"
A federal financial conflict-of-interest statute prohibits federal
employees from acting personally and substantially in any
"particular matter" that has a direct and predictable effect on their
financial interests. However, an exemption allows special government
employees serving on advisory panels to participate in matters that
directly affect their employer's financial interest if the employer is not
Routt Reigart, professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South
Carolina and a former member of a scientific advisory panel that evaluated
the use of data from human experimentation, said he was troubled that some
members had conflicts of interest that were not readily known. "There is
not a tight method of disclosing conflicts of interest," Reigart said.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an
environmental group, said that what "we're seeing is advisory board
panels -- stacked with industry mouthpieces -- acting like kangaroo
courts to strike down important EPA initiatives."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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