Nominee for EPA chemical safety post has deep industry ties
By MICHAEL BIESECKER and JEFF HORWITZ
Sep. 20, 2017
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's nominee to oversee chemical safety at the Environmental Protection Agency has for years accepted payments for criticizing studies that raised concerns about the safety of his clients' products, according to a review of financial records and his published work by The Associated Press.
Michael L. Dourson's nomination as head of EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention was to be considered by a Senate committee Wednesday, but was postponed when the Senate adjourned early for the week. If confirmed, ethics experts said, Dourson's past writings and the money paid to him and a nonprofit he founded could represent potential conflicts of interest.
Past corporate clients of Dourson and of a research group he ran include Dow Chemical Co., Koch Industries Inc. and Chevron Corp. His research has also been underwritten by industry trade and lobbying groups representing the makers of plastics, pesticides, processed foods and cigarettes.
A toxicologist, Dourson worked at the EPA for more than a decade, leaving in 1994 as the manager at a lab that assessed the health risks of exposure to chemicals. The following year, he founded Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, a private toxicity evaluation nonprofit organization that tests chemicals and produces reports on which chemicals are hazardous in what quantities.
Dourson's views toward industry are consistent with others Trump has selected as top federal regulators. Among them is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who in March overruled the findings of his agency's own scientists to reverse an effort to ban chlorpyrifos, one of the nation's most widely used pesticides.
Dourson and his organization previously worked under contract for Dow AgroSciences, the Dow subsidiary that makes chlorpyrifos. In three papers, Dourson and his colleagues pointed to what they said were flaws in peer-reviewed studies that linked delays in fetal development with even low levels of exposure to the pesticide, commonly sprayed on citrus fruits and apples.
In a 2005 paper on the topic, Dourson and his co-authors thanked Dow for its support over a number of years to study chlorpyrifos' toxicology and assess its risk and said that money in no way influenced their findings favoring the company's position.
Dourson did not immediately respond Tuesday to emails or phone messages seeking comment.
Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University professor who studies ethics in science and medicine, said appointing Dourson to oversee EPA's chemical safety programs is part of a broader effort to undermine federal regulations protecting public health.
"It is not even subtle," said Krimsky, who reviewed Dourson's recent published work. "He has chosen to be the voice of the chemical industry. His role as a scientist is simply the role of an industry-hired lawyer — only to give the best case for their client."
In addition to its corporate clients, Douson's organization gets money from the U.S. and Canadian governments. In some instances, companies pay the group to evaluate a chemical and it organizes a scientific panel to validate the findings.
According to the nonprofit's most recent publicly available IRS filing, Dourson was paid $131,000 for his work there in 2015. He separately earns $103,000 a year from the University of Cincinnati, where he holds a research position.
Dourson's pro-industry leanings were also evident in a now defunct website called "Kids + Chemical Safety," which his group ran. The site, which described itself as a source of information about the safe use of chemicals around children, mirrored talking points by chemical companies and trade groups that financed Dourson's work.
One 2016 article defended glycophospate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp weedkiller, saying it was too early to start pointing fingers. One post assured parents that exposure to fire retardant chemicals in children's pajamas was too low to be a health risk. Dourson was paid $10,000 by the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, according to a financial disclosure form he filed with the Office Government Ethics. That group is a subsidiary of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that has paid Dourson to conduct scientific reviews.
Dourson's willingness to align his scientific opinions with those of his corporate patrons has earned him support from influential industry groups now supporting his nomination.
The American Chemistry Council said he would make an excellent addition at EPA.
"His knowledge, experience and leadership will strengthen EPA's processes for evaluating and incorporating high quality science into regulatory decision making," said Jon Corley, the group's spokesman.
Dourson has also served without pay for two groups, the Toxicology Forum and the Toxicology Education Foundation, whose primary funders include the American Chemistry Council, oil companies and the makers of food additives. He has resigned or promised to resign from these posts if confirmed for the EPA job.
On the side, Dourson has also written three books seeking to reconcile his work as a scientist and a devoted Christian. His "Evidence of Faith" series seeks to align scientific knowledge with biblical accounts, such as how the Big Bang Theory could mesh with the Book of Genesis, whether the Shroud of Turin is real and whether evidence of the Nativity story can be found in the stars.
Court records show Dourson and his work have often been called on when his corporate clients are seeking to fend off lawsuits.
DuPont was accused of polluting a West Virginia town with Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a chemical that the company's internal tests had long ago concluded were toxic. Corporate officials discussed hiring Dourson as part of a strategy to defend themselves.
One DuPont executive praised Dourson's "ability to assemble a 'package' and then sell this to the EPA, or whomever we desired," according to an email cited in a 2013 legal claim by people who blamed exposure to the chemical for cancer, birth defects and other health problems.
Dourson led a team that found in 2002 that PFOA levels up to 150 parts per billion were safe, a level higher than was found in testing of 188 private wells and springs.
That was also well above the 1 part per billion Dupont's own scientists had concluded could be considered safe years before. The EPA now says that only 70 parts per trillion of PFOA are acceptable — or only 0.05 percent of what Dourson's team said was safe.
DuPont and a former subsidiary, Chemours Co., later paid $761 million to settle 3,550 lawsuits stemming from its use of the chemical.
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