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Trump wants former Big Tobacco ally to run EPA chemical safety

Trump wants former Big Tobacco ally to run EPA chemical safety
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Who do you want deciding what chemicals are safe for your children? That’s really the only question you need to ask when determining who should run the chemical safety office at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Presumably, with their own children and grandchildren in mind, few senators would want one of the country’s leading practitioners of mercenary science to take the job — someone who, with ties to the chemical industry, has repeatedly recommended chemical exposure levels hundreds of times above established limits and worked to protect corporate profits at the expense of the public’s health.

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Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of person President Trump has selected in his nomination of Michael Dourson to lead chemical safety at the EPA. Dourson has made a career of applying the tobacco industry’s strategy of manufacturing doubt and manipulating scientific data to defend toxic chemicals. He even worked for Big Tobacco long after it was clear that their only commitment to science was to invent results that would delay government action aimed at saving lives.

 

I’ve had the privilege of working for federal public health agencies for a good part of my career. And in this capacity, I’ve seen firsthand how critical strong and independent science is in making decisions that affect the health and safety of all Americans.

I’ve also spent decades researching and documenting the industry strategy of manufacturing scientific confusion and doubt that allows firms to continue to sell deadly products, no matter how many people are made sick. This strategy was invented by Big Tobacco but is now widely applied by polluters and manufacturers of dangerous chemicals and pesticides. But they can’t do it alone — they need the help of scientists like Dourson. 

One classic tactic looks like this: A company or industry has a product — cigarettes, a toxic chemical — that is under scrutiny because of evidence that it can make people sick. The manufacturer pays for a risk assessment that minimizes the risk, and the work is presented as legitimate science — even published in what looks like a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. 

If done effectively, the results seed doubt in the minds of decision-makers and the public. The objective is to create the appearance of a debate among scientists in order to delay any action to prevent harm. The result: Instead of the public being protected, it is the dangerous product and its unethical manufacturer that get protected. 

A key element in this playbook involves hiring product defense scientists like Dourson. They provide the “doubt science” that fosters confusion and downplays concerns about toxic chemicals. Dourson has a long track record of delivering for his clients. 

As recently as 2001, Dourson produced results the tobacco industry wanted, as part of its effort to stop the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which I ran under President Obama, from protecting non-smokers from breathing tobacco’s cancer-causing smoke.

Over and over again, chemical manufacturers have paid him and his firm Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) to help make the case for weak, inadequately protective public health standards. 

Internal industry emails have revealed that corporate officials felt they could trust Dourson and his firm. He is their go-to scientist, always ready to minimize the risks of exposure to their toxic chemicals and to weaken standards that should be protecting the health and safety of Americans.

The corporations for whom Dourson works assert he produces “sound science” — but what he really does is manufacture studies that sound like science. In reality, his studies are mercenary efforts whose results are pre-ordained: If he is hired to study a chemical, you can be sure he will conclude that chemical isn’t really all that dangerous.

When Dourson delivers for his industry clients, it is the public who pays, through weakened health protections. That’s not the quality of person we need in a leadership position in a critical public health agency.

If confirmed by the Senate, Michael Dourson would be making decisions that directly impact every one of us, every day. His record of putting corporate interests before the public’s health and safety makes him not merely deeply unqualified for this position but also profoundly untrustworthy. 

He should not be entrusted with protecting the health of our families.

Dr. David Michaels is professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at The George Washington University and former assistant secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety  and Health Administration (2009-2017) and assistant secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health (1998-2001). You can reach him at dmm@gwu.edu.