Mr. Trump Outdoes Himself in Picking a Conflicted Regulator

Oct 18, 2017 by


Credit David Doran

President Trump has made a habit of filling important jobs with people dedicated to undermining the laws they’re supposed to administer while pampering the industries they’re supposed to regulate. His nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency’s top clean air post, William Wehrum, is a retread from the George W. Bush administration with a deep doctrinal dislike of clean air regulations. His choice to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality is borderline comical: Kathleen Hartnett White, a former Texas official who believes that the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is harmless. Yet no nomination has been as brazen, as dangerous to public health and as deserving of Senate rejection as that of Michael Dourson to run the E.P.A. office in charge of reviewing chemicals used in agriculture, industry and household products.

Mr. Dourson is a scientist for hire. A toxicologist and a professor at the University of Cincinnati, he has a long history of consulting for chemical companies and conducting studies paid for with industry money. He frequently decided that the compounds he was evaluating were safe at exposure levels that are far more dangerous to public health than levels recommended by the E.P.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies. His nomination is enthusiastically endorsed by the chemical industry. It horrifies environmental groups, public health advocates, firefighters and scientists and has inspired many letters in opposition to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which may vote as early as Wednesday.

Among the chemicals that received a favorable nod from Mr. Dourson is 1,4-dioxane, which is used by paint and coating manufacturers and is also found in shampoos and other personal care products. His analysis recommended a safe level that was 1,000 times higher than the E.P.A.’s recommended level; the agency considers the chemical “a likely carcinogen.”

Another is PFOA, a chemical used by DuPont to make nonstick surfaces. The compound has been linked to cancers, thyroid diseases and other health problems. Working for West Virginia on the recommendation of DuPont, Mr. Dourson in 2002 helped establish a safety threshold of 150 parts per billion for PFOA in drinking water. That is substantially higher than the standard of 1 part per billion that DuPont’s own scientists had recommended more than a decade earlier, and higher still than the health advisory level of 0.07 parts per billion set by the E.P.A. last year.

More broadly troubling is that Mr. Dourson, if approved, will set back an arduous, yearslong effort to improve the regulation of chemicals. Last year, after many false starts, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that updated the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that had made it very hard for regulators to ban or regulate chemicals by requiring the E.P.A. to meet a very high burden of proof before taking action. The law also made it easy for companies to keep data about their products hidden from the public by claiming the information was a “trade secret.” The new law simplified the task by streamlining it, directing the E.P.A. to review at least 20 substances at a time, giving priority to the riskiest chemicals. The money to do this work will come from up to $25 million in annual fees paid by chemical manufacturers and processors.

Experts fear that if confirmed Mr. Dourson will put a much greater emphasis on pleasing the chemical industry than on protecting public health. He could, for instance, order his staff to cherry-pick studies and data that in turn would lead to lax standards or even allow the continued use of chemicals that ought to be banned outright. In March, the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, rejected a staff recommendation to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which scientists believe has harmed farm workers and children. Any decisions Mr. Dourson would make would most likely remain in place for years or even decades. E.P.A. reviews take several years to complete, and the agency has a long list of chemicals it needs to study

It would take just a few Republicans to block the nomination. There’s hope that Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who showed during a recent hearing an awareness of Mr. Dourson’s controversial work on chemical safety in her home state, will vote against him in the Environment and Public Works Committee, where Republicans have an 11-to-10 majority. Even if he wins there, Ms. Capito and her colleagues ought to think hard about the impact their votes could have on the health of Americans for years to come.

Correction: October 17, 2017
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described a 1976 law. That law allowed the chemical industry to claim that product data was a “trade secret” in order to keep the information hidden from the public, not from the E.P.A.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *