The fox shouldn’t guard the hen house

EPA says it must consider the perspective of multiple stakeholders when regulating, but the chemical industry can play an outsized role in Agency rulemaking. For example, when people paid by industry, through grants, contracts, or as employees, are appointed to EPA scientific advisory committees, this financial conflict of interest (financial COI) can lead to weaker rules that fail to protect health.

Under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA must use the “best available science” to determine chemical risks to health and the environment. A peer-review panel, the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC), which provides “independent advice and expert consultation” and is supposed to work free of “financial conflicts of interest” or “appearance of impartiality,” helps oversee the Agency’s work.

EPA has a professional and legal duty to select committee members who will provide credible and independent scientific analysis on the impact of toxic chemicals. However, that’s not what we saw when looking through the list of nominees for EPA’s SACC (both the permanent SACC and the ad hoc panel on cumulative risk).

We found several nominees who worked for companies with a financial interest in minimizing EPA’s regulation of hazardous materials and products. These are companies manufacturing and releasing several chemicals under the SACC’s purview such as:

  • ExxonMobil – manufactures di-isononyl phthalate, diisodecyl phthalate, 1,3-butadiene, and phthalic anhydride, and releases formaldehyde and ethylene dibromide
  • Dupont de Nemours – manufactures dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, previously merged with Dow which manufactures formaldehyde and 1,2-dichloropropane and releases 1,3-butadiene, 1,2-dichloroethane, and 1,1,2-trichloroethane
  • The Huntsman Corporation – manufactures phthalic anhydride, phosphoric acid triphenyl ester, di-ethylhexyl phthalate, dicyclohexyl phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate, and trans-1,2-dichloroethylene
  • BASF – manufactures formaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, phosphoric acid, triphenyl ester, phthalic anhydride, and trans-1,2-dichloroethylene
  • The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization representing 190 companies including chemical manufacturers

There were also nominees whose work was funded by the chemical industry. For example, one person was a consultant for several entities with financial conflicts of interest, publishing reviews of:

  • Triclosan, used in toothpastes, funded by Colgate-Palmolive;
  • Ozone, a criteria air pollutant, funded by the American Petroleum Institute;
  • Synthetic Organic Chemicals, funded by the American Chemistry Council; and
  • Phthalates and BPA, funded by the European Chemical Industrial Council.

Almost all of another nominee’s publications since 2012 were funded by the Council for the Advancement of Pyrethroid Human Risk Assessment (CAPHRA), a limited liability company registered to the Household and Commercial Products Association, an industry association of chemical companies (including BASF, Clorox, 3M, and Dow) manufacturing, formulating, distributing, and selling more than $180 billion worth of chemical products annually in the U.S.

Many of these blatant financial conflicts of interest weren’t publicly disclosed despite EPA’s COI policies, and EPA didn’t screen them out before proposing the list of SACC nominees.  EPA’s failure to address and remove these nominees with conflicts of interest places an undue burden on the public to bring these concerns to light and advocate for independent science. COI policies must be strictly and routinely enforced to ensure the quality of SACC reviews of EPA documents. Therefore, before identifying potential advisory board candidates, EPA’s vetting process should include:

  • publicly identifying and disclosing any conflicts that include financial ties with industry;
  • determining whether a conflict of interest exists with the committee member; and
  • implementing the necessary procedures to manage any conflicts of interest.

A recent publication proposes identifying what categorizes someone as having a high risk (financial link with a large national/multinational corporation) versus a low risk (professional interests or recipient of government or non-industry grants) when serving on a committee. It’s important to note that there has been concern around non-financial conflicts of interest such as professional interests or beliefs as well as conflicts of interest due to receiving financing via government grants. However, non-financial COI operate in a diversity of directions compared to financial conflict of interest which almost uniformly biases in favor of funding industry. Additionally, receiving funding from government agencies does not represent a financial conflict of interest, as they do not have a financial interest in the outcome of the work they fund.

Allowing people financed by chemical companies to serve on independent scientific panels threatens human and environmental health and isn’t aligned with EPA’s commitment to environmental justice. Therefore, in order to meet the Agency’s and Administration’s goals to address barriers that impair the ability of communities with environmental justice concerns to receive equitable access to human health or environmental benefits, EPA must adopt strong policies to weed out financial COI in scientific panels and ensure its decision-making is truly independent.