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EPA adds safeguards to spotlight conflicts on scientific panels

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced new safeguards Friday to prevent conflicts of interest or bias from tainting its science, including efforts to assess the dangers of toxic chemicals.

The reforms, targeting scientific review panels selected for EPA by outside contractors, follow a Center for Public Integrity-PBS NewsHour examination revealing ties between scientists and industry on a panel reviewing hexavalent chromium, a compound commonly found in drinking water that may cause cancer.

In that case, three panelists who urged the EPA to delay potentially stricter drinking water standards had been expert witnesses for industry in hexavalent chromium litigation. The scientists denied any conflict and said their input was based on research, but the case study revealed how the EPA is unaware of potential conflicts on its own panels.

Under its own process, the Center reported, the agency turns over the job of selecting panelists to private companies, which handle conflict-of-interest reviews in secret. All information the vendors collect, including financial disclosure forms, is “considered private and non-disclosable to EPA or outside entities except as required by law,” the EPA policy says.

The changes announced Friday add more layers of review — and provide more public disclosure — to the process.

Environmental watchdogs, who had questioned EPA's existing process, say the steps are overdue.

“It brings transparency to a process that wasn’t there before,” said Francesca Grifo, a senior policy fellow and expert on scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One key change: After an EPA-hired contractor selects members of a scientific review panel, “the contractor will consult with EPA to review whether the contractor followed existing conflicts of interest guidance and requirements, and identify and provide input on any issues.”

That step adds an extra layer of review by EPA.

Also, the agency said, the names of chosen panelists will be publicly posted before any meetings take place.

The new steps do not change EPA’s existing standards for assessing conflicts, the agency said, but instead add sunshine to the process.

“This process will ensure that existing conflicts of interest guidance and requirements are applied correctly and where a potential conflict of interest is identified, allow EPA to determine whether the contractor’s plan to address the conflict is acceptable,” the agency said.

The EPA’s acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe, said Friday the new steps show the agency is “committed to scientific integrity.”

“Improving the contract-managed peer review process and increasing transparency will lead to stronger science at the agency,” Perciasepe said in a statement.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has been outspoken about industry influence at the EPA. Denison praised the EPA for bringing more openness to the process.

“The hexavalent chromium example was the major impetus for this revision,” he said.

Hexavalent chromium, best known as the toxic chemical compound from the hit film Erin Brockovich, is found in the drinking water of more than 70 million Americans, according to the Environmental Working Group.

New animal studies published in 2008 showed that mice and rats given high doses of the compound developed large numbers of tumors. The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, cited the compound as a “clear carcinogen.”

The EPA planned to revise its assessment of the compound in 2011, even as a trade group, the American Chemistry Council, urged the agency to wait for industry funded studies. Several members of the peer review panel also urged the EPA to wait.

One was Steven Patierno, then a scientist at George Washington University, who was a consultant on ACC studies.

Another was Joshua Hamilton, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., which is affiliated with Brown University. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the company that polluted the water in Hinkley, Calif., with chromium, hired Hamilton as a consultant in 2009.

Hamilton said that just before the EPA peer-review panel met, PG&E asked him if he would go back to Hinkley to discuss the health effects of hexavalent chromium. PG&E said it paid Hamilton $110,000 for his work in Hinkley. Hamilton said he revealed the PG&E work to the private contractor hired by EPA, Eastern Research Group, and that the firm concluded it was not a conflict.

Officials with Eastern Research Group, based in Massachusetts, have not responded to interview requests.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress are pushing potential change to support industry.

The House science committee recently approved a bill to change the rules at the EPA for setting up scientific advisory panels. It would prevent the EPA from excluding people from panels with industry ties, as long as those ties are disclosed. It would also exclude panelists whose research is incorporated in the assessment. The bill is awaiting action by the full House.