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Caving to Industry Pressure, EPA Fires Chair of Chemical Panel

For Immediate Release: 
Friday, February 29, 2008

WASHINGTON – Under pressure from chemical industry lobbyists, the Bush Administration fired the chair of an expert science panel at the Environmental Protection Agency that was evaluating the safety of a neurotoxic fire retardant, according to documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

EPA is to issue by March 28th a reassessment of the human health risks from Deca, an industrial fire retardant used in electronics and other consumer products, and widely found in Americans’ blood and breast milk. But last summer EPA removed Dr. Deborah Rice, a Maine state scientist and author of an important study of the chemical, as chair of the external advisory panel for EPA’s review of fire retardants.

Her firing came after a protest from the chemical industry, which claimed Rice had a conflict of interest as a result of her testimony before the Maine Legislature, on behalf of her agency, in favor of phasing out Deca. EPA also removed her comments from the panel’s final report on Deca’s safety.

While the EPA and the chemical industry thought the presence of one of the country’s preeminent experts on the toxic fire retardant Deca had no business chairing the advisory panel, scores of individuals with direct financial ties to the chemical industry remain on a number of different external advisory panels.

An EWG review of 7 external expert panels convened last year under EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) found 17 members with direct or potential conflicts of interest, including employees of companies who make the chemicals under review or scientists whose work was funded by industries with a financial stake in the panel’s outcome.

“This is clear evidence of a blatant double standard where, the interests of the chemical industry come before the public’s health,” said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at EWG. “When the government removes top scientists from positions because they express concerns over potential health risks from industrial chemicals – at the same time leaving dozens of scientists with direct ties to the chemical industry on review panels – something is very wrong.”

In a May 3, 2007 letter to EPA, American Chemistry Council lobbyist Sharon H. Kneiss complained that Rice had shown an “appearance of bias” when she testified before the state legislature on behalf of the Maine Centers for Disease Control in favor of phasing out Deca. The letter and related documents are available at http://www.ewg.org/reports/decaconflict.

Rice was the panel member most knowledgeable about Deca, which is a developmental neurotoxin. A retired EPA scientist, Rice co-authored an important study on the chemical’s toxicity to the brain and nervous system during development. She also spearheaded a regulatory review mandated by Maine law to investigate the feasibility of replacing the fire retardant with less toxic chemicals.

“Under this logic the only people eligible to sit on science advisory panels at EPA are individuals that have never uttered a single remark or written a single word expressing concerns over the chemical in question, or people with financial ties to the chemical industry,” added Houlihan. “This bias in favor of the chemical industry places our most vulnerable populations at even greater risk from chemical exposure.”

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.