June 23, 2006 – Public health and worker advocates are decrying the nominations of nine scientists to an Environmental Protection Agency advisory board because of their connections to companies using a chemical they are set to review.
More than 20 organizations have signed a letter drafted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calling on the EPA to throw out the nominations to its science advisory board for ethylene oxide. According to the groups, financial conflicts of interest and a lack of impartiality and diversity among expertise and viewpoints â€“ all specific advisory-board criteria â€“ should disqualify the scientists.
According to the NRDC, five nominees have financial conflicts, while four have industry ties. The NRDC says panels usually consist of 10 to 15 people, but the EPA would not verify this number.
"Iâ€™m not convinced that those people will be the independent scientists that can provide critical scientific review," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at NRDC. "Iâ€™m actually more convinced that theyâ€™re going to be there serving the industry interests and being scientific advocates for their clients."
The EPA is forming the expert panel to peer review the agencyâ€™s "Carcinogenicity Evaluation of Ethylene Oxide," a document drafted by EPA scientists who assessed the potential human cancer-causing effects of the chemical. The panelâ€™s conclusions will likely decide how the EPA and state governments regulate ethylene oxide (EtO), a gas used primarily to sterilize medical equipment and fumigate spices. It is also used in the manufacturing of antifreeze, polyesters and detergents.
Financial conflicts-of-interest and a lack of impartiality and diversity among expertise and viewpoints should disqualify the scientists.
The EPA requested nominations from the public for the EtO advisory board in March before posting a 31-person "short list" of potential advisors for public comment, which ended last week. The agency denied The NewStandardâ€™s request for an interview.
In 2003, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency that researches workplace conditions, issued two studies that found men exposed to high levels of EtO have increased risk of developing blood cancer, while exposed women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. But the health risks associated with ethylene oxide have been noted well before the studies; in 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, categorized EtO as a definite cancer-causing agent in humans.
Exposure to the chemical occurs with skin contact and when the gas is inhaled.
Mike Wright, director of health, safety and the environment for the United Steelworkers union, was a signatory to the letter. He said a fair review of EtO was important to the union because of the occupational health implications.
"We represent people who use [EtO] as a sterilant," he told TNS. "We have people who work in facilities where theyâ€™re exposed, and thereâ€™s a significant health issue with that. We want to have a panel looking at it that isnâ€™t biased by its associations with the industry."
â€œIâ€™m not convinced that those people will be the independent scientists that can provide critical scientific review. Iâ€™m actually more convinced that theyâ€™re going to be there serving the industry interests and being scientific advocates for their clients.â€
But critics fear that the scientistsâ€™ ties with the EtO industry will compromise public health and sway the outcome of the review.
Two nominations, Michael Gargas and Christopher Kirman, work for the Sapphire Group and have consulted for the American Chemistry Councilâ€™s Ethylene Oxide Industry Council. The Sapphire Group is a health and science consulting firm that provides its clients with, among other things, "product support through scientific advocacy."
Mary Jane Teta, a principle scientist at Exponent, Inc., a scientific consulting firm, also consulted for the American Chemistry Council. While Kirman declared his associations in his biography for the advisory board assessment, Teta and Gargas did not.
Kirman did not return requests for an interview, while a co-worker for Gargas told TNS that he was on vacation.
Ted Schettler, science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, a coalition of public-health advocacy organizations, said this financial conflict of interest should bar the nominees from serving on the board.
"If an individual is being paid by someone who will benefit from a particular kind of decision," Schettler said, "thereâ€™s always the possibility that they would tend to make decisions that would favor the regulated industries in ways that might compromise public health."
Schettler said a financial conflict of interest is distinctly different than bias.
"I donâ€™t disagree that there are differing views on a number of things scientific," he said. "The one thing I think we can do and ought to do is keep the financial benefit out of it."
â€œIf an individual is being paid by someone who will benefit from a particular kind of decision, thereâ€™s always the possibility that they would tend to make decisions that would favor the regulated industries in ways that might compromise public health.â€
Other candidates who have financial conflicts of interest include David Garabrant and Robert Schnatter. Garabrant is currently working on a multi-million study on dioxin hazards funded by Dow Chemical, which claims to be the largest producer of EtO in the world. Schnatter works for ExxonMobil, a company that could be affected by the results of the peer review, as hydrocarbon fuel combustion is a source of EtO emissions.
Garabrant did not grant TNS an interview.
Critics are also asking for the removal of four other candidates because their consulting work represents a "coordinated industry perspective." The letter said, "Even where scientists may not have a disqualifying conflict of interest, they may nevertheless harbor a strong industry bias."
Gargas, Teta and Kirman have already publicly expressed their opinion about EtOâ€™s cancer risks. The three co-authored a report in 2004, published by the Sapphire Group, which concluded that EtOâ€™s cancer risk is not appreciable at low doses. Critics say because they came to the same conclusions about the chemical, the EPA will fail to include a diversity of viewpoints if they are appointed.
"Theyâ€™ve already made an opinion and that opinion has been published," Sass said. "So theyâ€™re not going to be open to other perspectives."
Critics have suggested four alternative nominees to the EPA who do not have financial conflicts of interest.