Michael Dourson left the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 20 years ago to start a nonprofit consulting firm that—unlike the federal government—would move swiftly to evaluate chemical hazards.
Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, would be a sort of one-stop science shop, Dourson decided: It would estimate the risks of cancer and other diseases associated with exposures to certain chemicals. It would peer-review research and publish those findings in a database. It would organize conferences to educate government and industry officials.
Dourson’s organization filled a gap left by the EPA, which has evaluated the safety of only 558 of 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The EPA’s sluggishness has created major business opportunities for firms like TERA because few state agencies have the resources to conduct their own risk-assessment studies, which are time-consuming and complex.
Dourson, a toxicologist who spent 15 years with the EPA, describes TERA as an independent firm that aims to protect public health by bringing together scientists from government, academia and industry. Through TERA, he has created a self-sustaining network of supporters in which clients, regulators and peer-reviewers often overlap. The firm’s reach has helped make Dourson an influential figure in the field of risk assessment—a niche discipline that is used to determine how much of a particular chemical is acceptable in the environment. The results of these studies shape thousands of public health decisions around the country, including the setting of drinking water standards and air pollution guidelines.
“People come to us specifically because they want to build a collaboration,” Dourson, 62, said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Cincinnati.
But an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News shows the firm has close ties to chemical manufacturers, tobacco companies and other industry interests. More than 50 percent of the peer-review panels TERA has organized since 1995 were for studies funded by industry groups. TERA also runs a risk-assessment database that receives financial and in-kind support from many companies and government agencies. Some of those groups have also paid TERA to peer-review studies they hope will be included in the database.
A 2011 study on acrylamide—a possible carcinogen found in French fries and potato chips— shows the extent of overlapping interests.
The acrylamide study, which aimed to evaluate the chemical's oral cancer risk, was funded by Burger King, Frito-Lay and other food companies. Four of its eight authors were TERA scientists, with Dourson the lead. TERA also selected the panel that reviewed the study. The study’s finding—which is 10 times less protective than the EPA's cancer risk for acrylamide—is now posted on the TERA database. The identities of the study’s funders are buried in footnotes.
"TERA goes out of its way to describe itself as a nonprofit, to emphasize it works for government, not just industry…when in fact [Dourson] and his group engage in industry-funded activities all the time,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Dourson isn't fazed by such complaints. "We get criticized by everyone," he said. "But that doesn't change the fact that TERA is neutral."
No state has taken advantage of TERA’s services more than Texas, where a rush of oil and gas production has created air pollution problems that the Center and InsideClimate News have been investigating for 20 months.
Dourson is a close friend of Michael Honeycutt, who heads the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the primary enforcer of the Clean Air Act and other federal environmental laws in Texas. His department has evaluated the toxicity of 45 chemicals since 2007 through its risk assessment program. Two-thirds of the resulting guidelines are less protective than they used to be.
The TCEQ gave TERA a four-year, $600,000 contract to help review the agency's chemical evaluations. Texas has hosted three conferences put on by the Alliance for Risk Assessment – an affiliate of TERA. Honeycutt sits on the alliance's steering committee and his agency has petitioned the committee to peer-review the agency’s work.
Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, reacted strongly when told of the relationship between Honeycutt and the alliance by the Center and InsideClimate News. “If it’s not illegal, it certainly raises eyebrows about whether it’s proper,” he said.
Honeycutt is “supposed to be working on behalf of all Texans,” Metzger said. Steering taxpayer dollars toward a firm whose decisions Honeycutt influences “further erodes the quickly diminishing trust we have in him.”
In an email, TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said Honeycutt receives no compensation from the Alliance for Risk Assessment and recuses himself from the steering committee whenever the TCEQ proposes a project.