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Chemical industry hired gun would be a big step backward for chemical safety

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Last year, Republicans and Democrats reached a rare bipartisan agreement on a major environmental law and passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The Lautenberg Act – for the first time – provides the Environmental Protection Agency with the authority to protect our kids from dangerous chemicals.

A year later, that new law is in a critically important phase as the EPA works to implement provisions that Congress wrote to promote safety. Environmental advocates and industry agreed that passage was a critical step to restore confidence in the safety of products in our homes and workplaces. And that can only happen if the EPA is allowed to do its work free from political interference. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will take a crucial vote today on whether to advance President Trump’s nominee to head the EPA’s office responsible for implementing the new law. If Michael Dourson is confirmed, the EPA’s current and future progress on chemical safety will be at risk.

{mosads}The American people have a vested interest in the EPA’s unbiased process. We come in contact with tens of thousands of chemicals—they prevent stains on our carpets, reduce static in our laptop, prevent the spread of fire, and keep our shirts wrinkle free. Yet, while we know that some can cause serious health impacts, the EPA didn’t have the authority to restrict their use until the Lautenberg law was passed.

For example, certain “flame retardant” chemicals can still be found in nearly every American home, despite evidence that they affect children’s brain development. The Lautenberg Act explicitly requires the EPA to review every new and existing chemical on the market. Late last year, the agency assembled its list of the first 10 existing chemicals to review for safety. It includes the industrial solvents TCE and 1-bromopropane, and 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen found in cosmetics and drinking water.

And that’s why the nomination of Dourson, a chemical industry hired gun, is so concerning. Dourson, whose nomination is pending before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has spent his career helping industry cover up the damage caused by dangerous substances – from second-hand smoke to PFOA, the chemical in Teflon tied to cancer.

As has been reported by several news outlets, Dourson’s firm, TERA, has had a clear business strategy: Industry would ask TERA to review a chemical, and Dourson would reliably suggest a looser standard than government scientists, even when the chemical is linked to serious health impacts. For example, Dourson recommended a safety standard for PFOA that was 2,000 times weaker than that recommended by the EPA. His work helped weaken the standard acceptable in West Virginia – even after a severe spill contaminated groundwater near a DuPont plant outside Parkersburg.

The list of chemicals that Dourson has found safer than relevant government agencies goes on and on. And if he were confirmed for his position, he would take the helm of the EPA’s toxics bureau with serious conflicts of interest. The chemicals Dourson has worked to greenwash include three on the bureau’s top 10 list: TCE, 1-bromopropane, and 1,4-dioxane. Anyone who believes Dourson could simply avoid conflicts should consider his responses during his Senate confirmation hearing. When asked if he agreed with the EPA’s safety analyses of petcoke, which diverged greatly from his own, Dourson refused to answer three times until he finally responded, “I’m not ready to answer that question.”

The American people already have reason to worry about his impact at EPA. Although he has not been confirmed, Dourson is currently working as an “adviser” to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Of course, Dourson is free to make a living however he chooses outside of government. But a toxicologist for hire has no place overseeing what the American people expect is a neutral process by which chemicals are evaluated for safety. By confirming Dourson to head the toxics bureau, Congress would – just a year after passing chemical safety reform – take a huge step toward undermining public confidence in the new law.

Dourson has made a career as a hired gun. But we don’t have to hire him, and we shouldn’t. The Senate should reject Dourson.

Udall was the Democratic co-author of the bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg for the 21st Century Act

Tags Scott Pruitt

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