A relatively obscure Congressional hearing on Tuesday became a flashpoint in a very important conflict: the attempt by the chemical industry -- led by Dow Chemical -- to gain a veto over the work of government scientists. This time, however, the scientists fought back, and they need our support.
The hearing was a joint project of the House Small Business Committee and House Science Committee. It focused on how a government report on cancer-causing chemicals is hurting "small business" in America. The Report on Carcinogens, which recently classified formaldehyde as a "known carcinogen" and styrene as a "reasonably anticipated" human carcinogen was under attack. It is a statutorily mandated report that is prepared by the highly respected National Toxicology Program (NTP).
The hearing is part of a disturbing pattern of political intimidation of government scientists for doing their jobs. Companies that make and use both chemicals launched an attack on the report even before it was published and its publication was delayed for years. It took political courage for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to allow the report to be released, and I was told phones rang off the hook at the White House from chemical industry lobbyists complaining about the decision.
The Report itself does not restrict the chemicals it names. The findings can be used by regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to decide if any changes are needed to environmental rules, but they mostly inform the public and the marketplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that its safety data sheets be updated when the Report lists a chemical, a basic right-to-know measure for American workers.
So what was Dow complaining about at Tuesday's hearing? Dow's chief scientist Jim Bus effectively said that the NTP doesn't do good science. Dow does good science. And the agency needs to give Dow and other companies a greater say in determinations like this for them to be credible with the public.
Never mind that the woman who runs the NTP and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences -- Dr. Linda Birnbaum -- is perhaps the most credentialed person on the planet on these matters. Never mind the exhaustive peer-review and outside consultation that already takes place. No, we need Dow more involved, because the public certainly thinks chemical makers are more credible judges of the products they make than public health scientists whose only mandate is to identify substances that may be harming public health.
The arrogance and self-serving nature of Dow's position was breath-taking, but the upside of the hearing was that it was also obvious and fell flat. Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) deserves special credit for blowing the whistle on the hearing, by pointing out that the styrene industry took credit for the fact that the hearing was taking place. Miller and Representatives Richmond (D-LA) and Tonko (D-NY) pointed out that industry opponents who would exonerate styrene and formaldehyde were hardly more credible than the NTP. Overall, the show trial intended by the hearing backfired on the inquisitors, Subcommittee Chairs Broun (R-GA) and Ellmers (R-NC).
But the issue requires continued vigilance. Already, the United States has lost the leadership of the world on health and safety issues in favor of the European Union, and that has an impact on our ability to compete in a world market that increasingly demands safer products. The modest attempts by EPA Administrator Jackson to restore that leadership have not only been undermined by House Republicans but in some cases by industry allies in the White House who have blocked key reforms. The attempt to politically intimidate Dr. Birnbaum would bring this trend to a new low, however, because it would signal that companies like Dow can block even the most basic scientific work from seeing the light of day when it offends them.
So please ask your member of Congress to support the independence of government scientists like Dr. Birnbaum at the NTP, but please also take a moment to tell Dow to back off and let government scientists do their job.