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Chemical Companies Decide What's Toxic, Not the EPA or FDA

A bill on drinking water standards was being vetted—and possibly even written, at least in part—by chemical industry lobbyists.

Photo Credit: KANIN.studio / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Nation on the Take by Wendell Potter & Nick Penniman (Bloomsbury Press, 2016):

Arsenic, like formaldehyde, can cause health and developmental problems and at high levels is linked to certain cancers. Columbia University professor Joseph Graziano jokes, darkly, that arsenic makes lead look like a vitamin. That’s because, as he told the Center for Public Integrity’s David Heath, it “sweeps across the body and impact[s] everything that’s going on, every organ system.” It’s in weed killers marketed to fight your lawn’s crabgrass, and, in many places, it’s in the water we drink.

A 2008 draft assessment by the EPA estimated that arsenic was seventeen times more potent than previously thought. In assessing the impact of arsenic on women in particular, the agency estimated that if a hundred thousand women were to consume the legal limit of arsenic currently permitted, 730 would get bladder or lung cancer.

After seeing the draft assessment, the producers of arsenic-based pesticides that hired Charlie Grizzle to lobby for them, Drexel Chemical Co. and Luxembourg-Pamol, began to take action, as did mining companies like Rio Tinto, which also would have been affected by the regulation. As the Center for Public Integrity’s David Heath reported, a group of lobbyists, including Grizzle, set up a meeting with Representative Mike Simpson, the Republican from Idaho, who by 2015 had received a total of $8,000 in campaign donations from Grizzle, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics.

All it took to send the EPA’s draft assessment to the National Academy of Sciences for a review was for a congressman to slip one paragraph into in a 221-page spending bill. When Heath asked Simpson about the paragraph, he said he worried about small communities not being able to meet drinking water standards.

Such stealth maneuvers are not uncommon in Congress. A senator, for example, can anonymously put a hold on legislation, completely blocking it. Committee members can insert language written by lobbyists directly into a large spending bill before anyone has adequate time to review it. As Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, bemoaned to Center for Public Integrity reporter David Heath in June 2014: “It’s happening more and more in this Congress that we see less and less of what goes on behind the scenes, that members aren’t informed until the last minute. So things like this, major policy changes like this, can happen somewhat in the dark of the night with very little information to the public.”

When confronted by a reporter, Simpson said he didn’t know that the paragraph inserted into the spending bill kept a weed killer containing arsenic on the market, and he said he had “no idea” that Grizzle had donated to his campaigns.

Delays continued in subsequent years as industry-funded scientists presented their views to the Academy, sometimes without disclosing their financial ties. (The Center for Public Integrity reported that one such scientist suggested that an arsenic dose even higher than the current drinking water standard doesn’t cause cancer.) The result: in 2015, seven years after the EPA’s draft assessment that arsenic is considerably more dangerous than previously thought, many public health experts said the federal government was continuing to allow too much arsenic in our water and in products like weed killers. 

“Nobody’s Looking Out for Our Welfare”

“We have a broken Toxic Substance Control Act,” says Tom Neltner. That’s the big problem that “federal health officials, prominent academics and even many leaders of the chemical industry” agree on, the Atlantic’s senior health care editor, Dr. James Hamblin, wrote in 2014.

The obstacles for public health are (1) the vast majority of the eighty thousand industrial chemicals available for use are not regulated or even tested by the government, and (2) companies are not even required to submit most of them for testing. 

“What most Americans don’t realize is nobody’s looking out for their welfare,” Mount Sinai’s Philip Landrigan told us. “The great fear is always that there might be other chemicals out there that have never been tested but to which children are exposed.”

In addition, the EPA (like the FDA) has to meet a very high standard before it can ban a toxin. The EPA has banned or limited only five. Weak laws even made it difficult to ban asbestos.

There were signs in 2015 that the chemical safety laws might be strengthened when legislation to update the laws for the first time in thirty-nine years received bipartisan support in the Senate. It would, among other things, require more frequent testing at the federal level and make it easier for the government to pull products off the shelves.

Sponsored by industry favorite David Vitter and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, who in the past has supported increased environmental protection, the bill even received kudos of sorts from some environmental advocacy groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, which view the legislation as an improvement over the broken status quo. Other green groups maintained it was much too weak. Senator Barbara Boxer was pushing a separate, more stringent bill that allowed for testing of more chemicals each year.

Vitter’s spokesman wrote that the “legislation provides common-sense reforms that are necessary to update the United States’ forty year old chemical regulatory program. Senator Vitter has worked with colleagues across this aisle, stakeholders from all sectors, and the EPA to draft this legislation that will drastically increase EPA’s ability to ensure the safety of chemicals being used in the United States.” It soon became apparent, however, that the bill was being vetted—and possibly even written, at least in part—by industry lobbyists. Using metadata on a Microsoft Word document circulated by Udall, a reporter for Hearst Newspapers found that the document originated at the American Chemistry Council. Senator Boxer said she felt certain the industry wrote it, citing a Senate information technology staffer who investigated the issue.

Udall, who the New York Times suggested had formed an “unlikely alliance” with the chemical industry, maintained that the document originated in his office. One of his aides told Hearst that “it was shared with a number of stakeholders including at least one other senator’s office. One of those stakeholders was the ACC.” But the council did not deny authoring that draft of the bill. “There’s no way for anyone to tell,” a council spokesperson said. Others, including Udall’s office, said anyone could change some metadata. A spokesperson for Udall said the senator has been engaged with all groups on all sides of the issue.

Regardless of who wrote the bill’s language, the end product was more than palatable to the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council called the bill the “culmination of a multi-year effort” to secure “compromise, common-sense” legislation that it characterized as “a balanced, science-driven solution that reassured the public that our products are safe and that keeps our economy growing.”

The ten biggest chemical companies spent $154 million lobbying on the bill over 2013 and 2014, the watchdog group MapLight found. In contrast, public interest, environmental, and medical groups together spent less than $18 million. The environmental groups spent $6.6 million.

Those chemical companies also contributed almost more than $4 million in campaign contributions to several candidates’ campaigns in the 2014 election as the sponsors were shepherding the bill through Congress, MapLight found. The ACC also donated $150,000 to a super PAC supporting Vitter’s gubernatorial bid in Louisiana.

The ACC also spent $4 million plus on TV and radio advertising in support of the reelection of Udall and the industry’s other allies in Congress, the Times reported. The ads portrayed Udall as a man who brings “both sides together to get results.” According to the Times, Udall “emphatically rejects” that he was doing the industry’s bidding: “We can’t do something that is pie in the sky; we have to deal with reality,” he said. 

 

Nick Penniman is the Executive Director of Issue One. He is the former executive director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, founder of the American News Project, publisher of the Washington Monthly, DC director of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, executive editor of TomPaine.com, associate editor of American Prospect magazine and director of the Alliance for Democracy.

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