Before he became President Trump’s nominee to oversee the safety of pesticides sprayed on our food, Michael Dourson sought to weaken pesticide safety standards for Monsanto and Dow.
EWG has identified at least three cases in which Dourson directed a safety evaluation of pesticides. For all three, pesticide companies paid him to set a “safe” dose of the chemicals the companies made. In each case, his panel set "safe" levels that were far less protective than the government agency decisions that followed.
In 2006, Dow AgroSciences hired Dourson to study the effects of chlorpyrifos on children’s brain development. Dourson’s panel recommended a safety level that was roughly 5,000 times weaker than what a 2016 assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency recommended for 1-to-2-year old children. Dourson was then paid by CropLife America, a trade and lobby association of pesticide producers to meet with EPA officials and voice his opposition to the agency’s proposed ban of chlorpyrifos on food crops.
Dourson was also paid by Dow and Monsanto to propose safe exposure levels for breakdown products of two widely used herbicides, alachlor and acetochlor, in an attempt to counter water standards developed by Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both chemicals are associated with higher cancer rates in male agricultural workers and have been detected in Midwestern water. Dourson’s panel recommended exposure levels that were 4.6 to 280 times less protective than those set by Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Progressive Reform.
Dourson’s work on the fumigant pesticide chloropicrin follows the trend. Chloropicrin is a gas injected into the soil to kill soil organisms. When it evaporates, it can cause severe eye and throat irritation, and long-term exposures increase risk of developing cancer.
In 2005, pesticide manufacturers hired Dourson’s science-for-hire consulting firm, TERA, to evaluate the safety of one-hour exposures to chloropicrin. Dourson’s panel proposed that one-hour exposures to 40 parts per billion in the air would not irritate and damage the eyes of workers and bystanders, or cause any other health problems. The EPA later used the TERA analysis as the basis for its own safety levels. When California examined the risks posed by chloropicrin inhalation, it set air concentrations for acute exposure that were 10 times lower than the TERA-calculated values for both adults and children.
If confirmed, Dourson would play a central role in EPA decisions related to chlorpyrifos, which Administrator Scott Pruitt has pledged to review by 2022; neonicotinoid pesticides, which can kill bees and other pollinators; the herbicide glyphosate, which has been linked to cancer and which the EPA must renew; and the herbicide atrazine, which Europe banned and is under EPA review for re-registration.
Given Dourson’s record of underestimating the risks posed by pesticides, it’s no wonder that the top lobbyist for the pesticide industry called him a “perfect fit” for the job.
Dourson hasn’t only greenwashed pesticides for companies like Monsanto and Dow. He has repeatedly sought to weaken safety standards for PFOA, a carcinogen formerly used to make Teflon; perchlorate, a jet fuel chemical that hinders the development of babies’ brains; the food chemical diacetyl, which gives workers “popcorn lung”; and TCE, the cancer-causing chemical made infamous by the book and movie “A Civil Action.”
Next week, a key Senate committee will hold a hearing on Dourson’s nomination. Will senators put the needs of the pesticide industry ahead of public health?