The National Academy of Sciences was created during the Civil War to provide objective advice from the nation’s most highly regarded scientists. In 1999 and 2001, the academy twice reviewed the EPA’s analysis of arsenic and concluded it badly underestimated the risk. The EPA’s draft that has been delayed was built in part off the academy’s critique.
Taking scientific assessments out of the hands of the EPA and giving them to the academy has become a tactic to delay regulations, said Charles Fox, a former EPA assistant administrator who oversaw the development of a new drinking water standard for arsenic.
“The standard playbook that industry uses first begins with questioning the science, and they can question the science in any one of a number of different forms,” he said. “There is a scientific advisory board at EPA. There’s the National Academy of Sciences.”
But endless delays to perfect the science can jeopardize public health, Fox said.
“We always as regulators had to do our best to make decisions based on the best available science we had at the time. Science will always improve and you can always revisit that decision down the road, but fundamentally we have an obligation to protect public health in the environment, and that decision needs to be made on the best science that you have today.”
In a letter last October telling buyers that the EPA had lifted its ban for at least three years, the MSMA manufacturers said in a joint statement that they “fully expect the NAS review to result in a less stringent risk value for human exposure to inorganic arsenic.”
If so, the companies said, they are confident the threat of a ban will be lifted permanently and the EPA may even allow other uses of MSMA.
The two manufacturers of the herbicide are still trying to influence the scientific assessment. The National Academy held a meeting in April 2013 to review the science on arsenic. It invited 14 scientists to give presentations. Two of those scientists are funded by Drexel and Luxembourg-Pamol, which lobbied Simpson to delay the EPA.
The academy doesn’t require presenters to disclose their financial ties; some choose to do so and some don’t. Neither of the scientists funded by the pesticide companies disclosed their ties at the meeting.
Dr. Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, told the panel that inorganic arsenic doesn't cause cancer or any other diseases in people below a certain threshold dose, which he suggests is substantially higher than the current drinking water standard. Cohen has been funded by the MSMA manufacturers for more than a decade, according to disclosures in published articles.
Barbara Beck, who works for Gradient, a scientific consulting firm often hired by industry, also gave a presentation without disclosing her ties.
Eldan, with Luxembourg-Pamol, acknowledged that both scientists are paid by her company. Beck prepared a 32-page report on the EPA’s arsenic assessment. Eldan said that Beck and Cohen disclose their ties in published articles in scientific journals. In some cases, Eldan, a scientist herself, is listed as a co-author.
Cohen said in an email that he disclosed his funding in published articles that he provided to the academy. Records show that Cohen sent the academy three articles that listed funding only from the “Arsenic Science Task Force,” with no further explanation about the task force.
Beck said, “Although I have done work for the Organic Arsenical Products Task Force [composed of the two pesticide companies], my presence and presentation at the April 2013 meeting were funded wholly by Gradient …. At both meetings, I am solely responsible for my comments.”
Joseph Graziano, who chairs the National Academy of Sciences panel on arsenic, said he hadn’t realized that Beck and Cohen were being funded by the pesticide companies when they spoke at the workshop. “I was not aware of that,” he said, “and I don’t think the committee was aware of it.”
Congress rescues the formaldehyde industry
This is not the first time Congress has pressured the EPA to hand over science on toxic chemicals to the National Academy. In 2009, Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, held up the nomination of a top EPA official as leverage to force the agency to have the academy review the risks of formaldehyde.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute of Health’s National Toxicology Program both say that formaldehyde can cause cancer. The EPA was preparing to say the same.
Yet the agency ultimately relented to Vitter’s demand. After months of review, the academy criticized the IRIS draft on formaldehyde for being repetitive, poorly organized and failing to clearly present all the evidence of its findings. The panel recommended the EPA redo the draft to be more clear and concise. Recognizing that the EPA was having a problem in completing assessments, the academy said it wasn’t calling for a delay.
Soon, however, the formaldehyde industry was turning to Congress to help it delay the assessment. Right next to Simpson’s language in the committee report about delaying the arsenic assessment was another set of instructions to the EPA. This time, IRIS was told to apply the academy’s recommendations on formaldehyde to all ongoing and future assessments. When asked if he requested the language, Grizzle acknowledged only that he was one of the lobbyists for the Formaldehyde Council, an arm of the industry.
The EPA said in a report to Congress it won’t start all its assessments over from scratch, but it will try to incorporate the academy’s recommendations. As a result, the 47 pending reviews have been further delayed.
IRIS Director Vincent Cogliano said the changes will lead to more rigorous assessments that should have an easier time getting through peer review. When asked how IRIS responds to political pressure, he said he had little control over that.
“We’re doing our best to keep our assessments focused on the science,” he said. “What happens after that is not part of the IRIS process.”
‘It’s not their right’
Eldan said people shouldn’t be worried about her company’s weed killer.
“To be honest, we believe that this is a good product, that it does not pose a concern to health and the environment,” she said.
Clearing weeds from the sides of highways can be a safety issue, she said, because tall plants can block vision. Even on golf courses, there are safety concerns, she said.
“The weeds have a tendency to spread. If you don’t use herbicides, it’s not only one weed. They can cover the golf course,” Eldan said. “The players can stumble on them.”