AUSTIN— In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state’s long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world’s most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.
The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation’s largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only "absolutely safe" dose was zero.
It’s "the most irresponsible action I've heard of in my life," said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ’s predecessor agency in the 1970s. "I certainly can't find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that's done that."
The benzene decision was part of Texas’ sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state’s guidelines at the time were already among the nation’s weakest.
The changes are being supervised by TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who began updating the way Texas develops its guidelines in 2003, when he was promoted to division chief. A genial, bespectacled man who takes great pride in his work, Honeycutt is a trusted advisor to top TCEQ officials and often acts as the agency’s scientific spokesman. He is also a frequent critic of federal efforts to reduce air pollution.
Honeycutt's actions reflect Texas’s pro-industry approach to air quality, which InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been examining for the past year and a half. Most of the air-quality guidelines the state’s oil and gas producers are supposed to meet are not legally enforceable regulations. That means violators are rarely punished, and residents who complain about foul air near drilling sites have few places to turn for help.
Texas has made its anti-regulatory stance known on the national front. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the state’s governor-elect, has taken legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 19 times since 2010, arguing that overly restrictive regulations stifle business growth, cost jobs and threaten the state’s economy. The EPA is “a runaway federal agency that must be reined in,” Abbott said last year when he challenged greenhouse gas regulations.
Honeycutt has publicly criticized the EPA for being overzealous in its regulation of ozone, which exacerbates asthma; particulate matter, a known respiratory hazard; and hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical that launched the Erin Brockovich case. In testimony before a congressional committee in 2011, he said the EPA had been overly cautious in evaluating the toxicity of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin known to lower IQ. Mercury is particularly harmful to developing fetuses.
"EPA ignores the fact that Japanese eat 10 times more fish than Americans do and have higher levels of mercury in their blood, but have lower rates of coronary heart disease and high scores on their IQ tests," Honeycutt said in a letter responding to written questions from one of the committee members after the hearing.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who has tried for years to strengthen Texas public health regulations, said Honeycutt's role as chief toxicologist is more political than scientific.
"I consider him an apologist for the polluters," Burnam said. "I think he doesn't give a tinker's dam about public health."
Honeycutt said the toxicologists on his staff are good scientists who take their jobs seriously.
“Our friends and family live in this state, too,” Honeycutt said. “My son wants to go to school in Houston, and I want him to be just as protected as every other kid in Houston."
Scientists interviewed for this story agree that Texas needed to update the process it uses to set air quality guidelines. When Honeycutt took over, he introduced formalized methods of risk assessment, an interdisciplinary field of science that includes toxicology, epidemiology and biostatistics. Risk assessment has become the most widely used method of determining the health risks chemicals pose to the public.
But scientists say the process has inherent uncertainties that open the door to bias.
"This is done across the spectrum, not only from those more inclined to have higher permissible standards, but also by those that would like to have lower ones," said Maria Morandi, a private consultant who formerly worked as a health scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.
The problem, Morandi said, is that finding the scientifically "correct" exposure level for each of the thousands of chemicals industries release into the air is impossible because it would require exorbitantly expensive experiments, or illegal and unethical testing on humans. The best scientists can do, she said, is extrapolate data from existing studies and hope the numbers they produce are low enough to protect a majority of the population.
The potential for bias comes in when the risk assessment team chooses which studies to include or exclude, and how to weigh the available evidence. Some scientists lean toward the side of public health and believe many existing standards aren’t strong enough. Others tend to be more lenient, taking the view that overly protective standards place needless and expensive burdens on industry.
It's "about what questions you ask, what uncertainties you leave alone and which ones you decide to focus on," said Ruthann Rudel, director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, a research center in Massachusetts. Bias in risk assessment is rarely a product of fraudulent science, she said, but rather a reflection of how scientists choose to frame their analysis.