Bill Will Erode EPA’s Independent Scientific Oversight

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 12, 2012.  A recent bill introduced in Congress aims to radically alter notions of conflict of interest and would severely hamper the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (EPA SAB) to reach independent and objective scientific conclusions that can form the basis of policy and chemical risk assessments. This is according to several scientists and environmental organizations that say the bill would weaken longstanding conflict-of-interest considerations for industry scientists, while imposing unprecedented and unnecessary limitations on EPA-funded scientists.

H.R. 6564: EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2012, a bill “to amend the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act of 1978 to provide for Scientific Advisory Board member qualifications, public participation, and for other purposes,” introduced by U.S. Representative Ralph Hall (R-Texas), would reform EPA’s Science Advisory Board, or SAB, and its subpanels. According to Rep. Hall, H.R. 6564 will increase transparency and reduce conflicts of interests among SAB members. However, independent scientists believe it is an underhanded attack to weaken, if not dismantle, EPA’s scientific process. In two letters, one from eight of the largest national environmental groups and another from 13 public health scientists, Congressional science committee members were urged to rethink pushing forward with the legislation. One letter states, “This proposed legislation would only serve to reverse progress in bringing the best scientific advice and analysis to EPA. The consequence would be to deprive EPA of needed scientific advice on the most complex and pressing environmental health problems of our day.” The letter written by environmental groups notes that industry representatives already dominate proceedings because of their greater numbers and resources.

Congress established the SAB in 1978 and its mission is to provide influential feedback on scientific and technical issues to EPA, such as EPA’s drinking water standards, chemical assessments, human health, ecological and economic impacts. Republicans and industry have long criticized SAB for excluding private-sector experience in favor of university scientists who often receive funding from EPA to conduct their research. They argue that can create a conflict of interest, and Rep. Hall’s legislation would prohibit any scientist who has received any such funds from sitting on the board. But scientists, led by George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services Dean Lynn Goldman, M.D., former EPA Assistant Administrator for Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, took particular aim at that provision.

“The underlying idea that scientists who obtain funding from EPA for any project have conflicts about all EPA matters is baseless and reflects a misunderstanding of who we are as scientists and our role in society,” the group of scientists wrote. Further, they added, the bill “seems to aim to open the door for more involvement on EPA advisory committees by scientists from industry who actually do have potential conflicts of interest.”

Specifically, the measure would reverse longstanding conflict-of-interest policy and practice followed by every authoritative scientific body in the world, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), by allowing unrestrained access of industry representatives with direct conflicts of interest to serve on the SAB and its panels, as long as their conflicts are disclosed. Further, according to a blog post by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a signatory to the letter, “The bill limits participation by scientists receiving funding from EPA while they serve on the Board to no more than 10% of the total committee. This targets academic/university scientists, typically considered the most independent among experts, because their research is not funded by industries with a stake in the outcome of the research.”

EPA typically reviews scientific research from both university-based research projects that it may help fund, as well as industry data. However, H.R. 6564 would limit university-based scientists from serving on the SAB, predisposing SAB decisions to the positions of more industry-affiliated experts. In other words, the bill presumes that university scientists receiving EPA grants present a conflict of interest, but industry scientists, whose employers have a financial stake in the Board’s decisions, do not. Most of the data EPA reviews are already generated by industry, guided by regulatory standards.

Additionally, the concerned groups also point out that a provision in the bill would add so much to SAB’s work, it would almost grind EPA to a halt. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a lobby for the chemical manufacturing industry, advanced H.R. 6564, which also contains a provision to require that all EPA risk and hazard assessments are subject to SAB review, leading to “endless delays.” This would undoubtedly add years to the already overly long drawn-out process to complete an EPA risk assessment, potentially delaying any possible redress of public health risks and environmental contamination mitigation.

H.R. 6564 would encourage industry conflicts in the review of scientific materials while impeding the agency’s ability to draw on independent experts. It would also pile new and burdensome requirements on the SAB, severely hampering its work and effectiveness. The result would be to further stall and undermine public health, safety and environmental measures conducted by EPA.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: E&E News,