(NaturalNews) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed an award-winning neurotoxin specialist from a toxicology review panel in August, in compliance with a request from the industry lobby group the American Chemical Council.
Deborah Rice, currently an employee of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, was among five scientists to win an award from the EPA in 2004 for "exceptionally high-quality research" into lead exposure's ability to cause premature puberty in girls. In her former position as a senior toxicologist for the EPA National Center for Environmental Research, Rice was one of the scientists involved in setting the agency's guidelines for fish consumption as a way of limiting mercury exposure.
A specialist in neurotoxins, Rice has also extensively studied the low-dose neurological effects of the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) known as deca. That's why when the EPA set up a five-member panel to review the safety of deca in early 2007 it selected Rice as panel chair.
PBDEs are flame-retarding chemicals widely used in the plastic housings of electronic items such as television sets. They are also used in automobiles, building materials and furniture textiles. Two PBDEs, known as penta and octa, were banned in 2004 after studies showed that they disrupted the nervous and hormonal systems and were accumulating in the tissue of humans and wildlife.
Prior to being banned, penta and octa concentrations in breast milk were doubling every four to six years, a rate of chemical accumulation not seen since the 1950s. After the ban, concentrations began to decrease.
While the purpose of the EPA panel on deca was only to review and comment on the scientific research surrounding the chemical, the panel's report would be used by the EPA to set new maximums for safe exposure.
The EPA has not yet released these new exposure levels, but if they are set low enough, it could mean an end to the chemical's use in consumer products. This would be a major blow to the global chemical industry, which manufactures 56,000 tons of the substance each year; the majority of it for use in the United States and Asia.
In May, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, Sharon Kneiss, wrote a letter to an EPA assistant administrator objecting to Rice's presence on the deca panel. Kneiss called Rice "a fervent advocate of banning" deca, who "has no place in an independent, objective peer review." Having Rice on the panel, Kneiss said, "calls into question the overall integrity" of the deca review.
As evidence of Rice's alleged bias, the American Chemistry Council pointed to comments she had made saying that deca should be banned due to its toxic and bioaccumulating nature.
"We don't need to wait another five years or even another two years and let it increase in the environment, while we nail down every possible question we have," Rice said to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March 2007. Rice also testified before the Maine state legislature in favor of a ban on the substance.
One month after receiving the American Chemistry Council's letter, top EPA officials met with representatives of the group and promised to act on their concerns. In August, the EPA dismissed Rice from the panel and removed all of her comments, as well as any mention of her, from the panel's final report.
Yet a review of EPA documents reveals that all of Rice's comments concerned only technical questions about the toxicity of deca. Rice suggested, for example, that the EPA consider the long-term cumulative effects of chemicals that exhibit similar toxic effects to deca.
The agency says it dismissed Rice because of "the perception of a potential conflict of interest." But this rationale has been criticized as a double standard, given the agency's willingness to allow industry advocates to remain on its panels.
According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), there were 17 members on seven EPA review panels in 2007 who had financial ties to the chemical industry, or who had publicly affirmed the safety of the chemicals they were reviewing. For example, an example an Exxon Mobil employee was allowed to serve on a panel reviewing the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide, which is manufactured by that company.
Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at EWG, said the EPA's double standard on conflicts of interest is "deeply problematic from the public interest perspective."
"It's a scary world if we create a precedent that says scientists involved in decision-making are perceived to be too biased," she said.
Representative Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, expressed concern about the EPA's acceptance of pro-industry panelists and dismissal of those who are critical of chemicals.
"If this information is accurate, it raises serious questions about EPA's approach to preventing conflicts of interest on its expert scientific panels," Waxman said.
Deca was formerly thought to be less dangerous that other PBDEs, because it did not appear to accumulate in human and wildlife bodies in the same way. But more recent research has indicated that when exposed to sunlight, deca transforms into different PBDEs, which do accumulate in the environment.
Like other PBDE flame-retardants, deca is known to affect brain development and interfere with thyroid hormones. These effects can lead to problems in the learning and motor skills of young animals, including humans.
Out of concern for these effects, both Maine and Washington have passed laws phasing out certain uses of deca and restricting others. California is considering similar laws.