White House safety rule sparks concern

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has flagged an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use test data from companies and other existing data in judging whether chemicals found in pesticides and plastics could disrupt the human endocrine system, which releases hormones. Markey argued that the EPA should be allowed to conduct its own tests to determine the safe exposure levels of chemicals, such as pesticides and contaminants in the environment.

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Markey, in a letter to OMB Director Peter Orszag, said OMB may be providing “directions that could result in forcing EPA to ignore basic biology as well as emerging science behind endocrine disruptors, and miss important opportunities for advancing scientific understanding of endocrine disruptors.”

“These actions could put our public health at risk,” Markey wrote last week.

Markey also asked Orszag whether OMB’s suggestion to EPA is the result of information provided by outside parties, such as chemical companies. Markey requested evidence that the companies’ data and other existing information is enough to determine the chemicals’ effects on estrogen, androgen and other hormones.

Early Wednesday, Markey’s office said he had yet to receive a response to his letter from OMB. But a spokesman for the White House office said that reports on possible conflicts over the chemical testing have been “plain wrong.”

“EPA and OMB are in full agreement on the review process and there were no problems or issues with the endocrine materials,” said Tom Gavin, OMB spokesman. “OMB endorsed strongly the path forward that EPA had provided. A more formal response will be given to Chairman Markey.”

Markey said later Wednesday that his staff met with Obama administration officials who tried to allay his concerns about any interference by OMB officials in science decisions.

“OMB and EPA staffs have contacted my office, and have informed my staff that EPA’s ability to do its job as a science-based regulator has not been and will not be inhibited by the OMB,” Markey said. “I look forward to OMB’s formal response to my letter, and I am committed to ensuring that EPA will be able to obtain the information needed to assess the risk that endocrine disruptors may pose to human health.”

Recent OMB decisions on scientific testing have touched a nerve among left-leaning groups that once charged President George W. Bush’s administration with infusing science programs with politics, a practice that the Obama administration has vowed to stop.

Markey and science groups last year decried a decision by OMB during the Bush administration to ignore EPA’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions likely endangered public health. Weeks after taking office, President Barack Obama issued a memo to executive branch officials calling for greater transparency over policy decisions involving science and assigning the Office of Science and Technology Policy the job of ensuring that scientific integrity wasn’t breached.

“The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions,” Obama said in the memo. “Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.”

Last week, the Center for Progressive Reform wrote a letter to an OMB official and John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, expressing concerns that White House regulatory reviews haven’t changed enough under the new president.

The left-leaning public policy group said the OMB’s guidance on chemical test data marked the second time this month OMB officials called on the EPA to use “industry-friendly” information. OMB had suggested the EPA take such information into account when assessing chemicals’ toxicological profiles, said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform.

“The episodes represent a direct assault on scientific integrity because they involve attempts to reverse conclusions by agency experts at the behest of regulated industries whose central objections were rooted in concerns about potential future compliance costs, not the accuracy of EPA’s science,” Steinzor wrote in a letter.

Robert Glicksman, a George Washington University environmental law professor who also signed the letter with Steinzor, said OMB tends to be more concerned about economic impact and cost of compliance instead of science.

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Glicksman said the culture has changed in some areas under the new administration. Unlike their predecessors, Obama administration officials have accepted scientific findings about greenhouse gas emissions’ effect on public health, paving the way for possible EPA regulations, Glicksman said.

But he suggested OMB and other executive branch departments may have “holdovers” who worked in a culture in which scientific integrity wasn’t respected.

“Our concern is generally that OMB sometimes strays beyond the bounds of its primary responsibility by providing input on scientific issues on which EPA staff have greater expertise,” he said. “So what we’d like to see is for OMB to stop trying to override the EPA decisions on science matters as opposed to economic impact.”