September 20, 2017; Chicago Tribune
One of the latest nominees to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Dourson, a nomination that is already raising considerable hackles in the science and environmental communities. Dourson, a toxicologist who once worked as a manager of an EPA lab that calculated the danger of chemical exposure, has been named to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
On the surface, Dourson would seem to be highly qualified. Dourson founded a nonprofit organization in 1995, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), which tests and reports on whether chemicals are toxic and at what rate. The organization has 20 employees and a $2.5 million budget. Dourson’s salary is paid jointly by TERA and the University of Cincinnati. But the nonprofit relies heavily on corporate contracts to fund its operations.
Dourson’s past clients have included Koch Industries, Chevron, and Dow Chemical, and his work has been underwritten by trade and lobbying groups that produce pesticides and cigarettes, among others. Ethics experts have expressed concerns both about the nonprofit and Dourson’s writings. For example, Sheldon Krimsky, from Tufts University said that “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.”
For instance, Dourson and TERA produced three recent papers that said there were flaws in peer-reviewed papers that showed a link between the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and delays in fetal development. The chemical is produced by Dow AgroSciences, a past client. Dourson and his coauthors declared that money did not influence their findings, but thanked Dow in a 2005 paper for its support of the study. The American Chemistry Council has stated support for Dourson’s nomination. The trade organization has paid Dourson for scientific reviews. Their spokesperson, Jon Corley, said, “His knowledge, experience and leadership will strengthen EPA’s processes for evaluating and incorporating high quality science into regulatory decision making.”
Dourson has also been an unpaid consultant with Toxicology Forum and the Toxicology Education Foundation, two 501(c)(3)s whose primary funders include the American Chemistry Council, oil companies, and the makers of food additives. If he is confirmed for the EPA, he has promised to end these affiliations.
One of Dourson’s largest accounts was for DuPont. The company was blamed for polluting a West Virginia town with toxic perfluoroctanoic acid, or PFOA. Dourson’s team determined in 2002 that PFOA levels of 150 ppb were safe, and the 188 private wells tested had a lower level. Dourson’s findings were well above the 1 ppb that the internal findings at DuPont stated were safe. The EPA has since declared that only .05 percent of Dourson’s acceptable level of 150ppb is actually safe.
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.
It appears that the Trump administration has a practice of hiring people for agencies on the inside of the corresponding industry. It also appears they often have views that are incompatible with the mission of the agency where they will be working. We have looked at some of the nominees and their ties to for-profit business here and here. Dourson’s ethics filing for transition to a government position will likely be a long one.—Marian Conway