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Why Did the EPA Fire a Respected Toxicologist? A Longtime Defender of Scientific Integrity Speaks Out

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported, the US Environmental Protection Agency forced the director of its Midwest Office to quit after she refused to let Dow Chemical off the hook for stalling on the cleanup of dioxin-contaminated soil stretching 50 miles from its Midland, Mich., plant. Regional Administrator Mary Gade had ordered Dow to dredge a number of dioxin hotspots over the past year and balked at the company’s attempts to negotiate a more comprehensive cleanup as stalling.


Dioxin, a highly toxic, persistent organochlorine, causes cancer and disrupts the immune and reproductive systems, according to the EPA’s own Web site. “Dow responded by appealing to officials in Washington,” the Tribune reported, based on “heavily redacted letters” the paper obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Even though Gade’s work won praise from the agency, she was asked to quit or be fired. She resigned. Dow has long resisted a government role in any cleanup, but does not deny its responsibility for dioxin contamination near its Michigan headquarters.


In March, the US House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into potential conflicts of interest in scientific panels that advise the Environmental Protection Agency on the human health effects of toxic chemicals. The committee identified eight scientists that served as consultants or members of EPA science advisory panels while getting research support from the chemical industry to study the chemicals under review. Two scientists were actually employed by companies that made or worked with manufacturers of the chemicals under review.


Such conflicts, Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) noted, stand in stark contrast to the agency’s dismissal last summer of highly respected public health scientist Deborah Rice, an expert in toxicology, from a panel examining the health impacts of the flame retardant deca. The EPA fired Rice after the chemical industry’s trade group, the American Chemistry Council, complained that she could not provide an objective scientific review because she had spoken out about the health hazards posed by deca.

This trend is neither new nor unique, argues legendary lead researcher Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, in “The Case of Deborah Rice: Who is the Environmental Protection Agency Protecting?” published today in PLoS Biology. With his groundbreaking research on the cognitive effects of lead on children, Needleman laid the foundation for one of the greatest environmental health successes of modern times – a five-fold reduction in the prevalence of lead poisoning in American children.


The EPA summarily fired Rice, Needleman argues, even though it had honored her just a few years before with one of its most prestigious scientific awards for “exceptionally high-quality research into lead’s toxicity.” Why? Because the American Chemistry Council asked the agency to fire her. “EPA, without examining or contesting the charge of bias, complied,” Needleman writes. “There is now no evidence that she ever participated in the EPA proceedings, or was even in the room.” Rice, who is “widely admired by her colleagues for her intelligence, integrity and moral compass,” Needleman writes, will “withstand this insult and continue to contribute to the public welfare.”


But who will protect scientists and public safety from industry pressure and government collusion? In a March 13 letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, Rep. Dingell writes: “The ACC does not assert that Dr. Rice has any pecuniary interest in the human health assessment at issue, and therefore seems to argue that scientific expertise with regard to a particular chemical and its human health effects is a basis for disqualification from a peer review board. This does not seem sensible on its face.” Only time will tell whether Dingell’s investigation, or others like it, will ultimately lead to new laws to safeguard scientific integrity, and public health, from the undue influence of industry.

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