The hit 2000 film Erin Brockovich, which tells the story of how a novice legal clerk holds a huge corporation liable for contaminating a town's drinking water with the carcinogenic chemical hexavalent chromium, or chromium (VI), ends in justice for those harmed. But as it turns out, Hinkley, California, the real-life town featured in the movie, is still contaminated.
Not only that, but when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was about to announce its findings in 2011, citing "clear evidence" that the chemical can cause cancer (evidence that has been mounting since the 1950s), the chemical industry lobbying giant, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), urged the EPA to delay -- and succeeded. Issuing those findings would have been a first step towards generating tougher rules to protect clean water. In February 2012, the EPA quietly announced on its website that the findings wouldn't be released for at least another four years.
How is it possible for the chemical industry to wield so much power over the agency that is tasked to regulate it? A PBS NewsHour series released this month in cooperation with the non-profit investigative news organization Center for Public Integrity (CPI) called "Toxic Clout" explores how the industry's actions create uncertainty and delay, which, the series argues, threatens public health.
Industry Scientists Stall Regulatory Action on Carcinogenic Chemical
The Hinkley, California residents involved in the class action lawsuit that Erin Brockovich made famous charged that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) had contaminated the town's groundwater, leading to a spate of cancer cases and other illnesses. They won millions of dollars in court. But what about the tens of millions of people who drink water laced with chromium (VI) every day? Laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2010 found that the drinking water in 89 percent of cities sampled contained the chemical, which is used to prevent rust.
Chromium (VI) continues to be unregulated because the issue of whether or not it causes cancer is still being debated. By whom? According to CPI, "Some of the most powerful voices in the debate are companies with a stake in the outcome. They've hired scientists to convince regulators that the chemical compound is safe."
Not only did the chemical lobby, ACC, succeed in convincing the EPA to hold off on announcing its findings (a move that would have taken a step towards creating more stringent rules for clean water); but it paid for further research on the toxicity of the chemical.
To do the research, the ACC hired a Texas-based firm stacked with scientists with a track record of working to delay regulatory action on chromium. The firm is ToxStrategies Inc., and two of its principal scientists, Mark Harris and Deborah Proctor, have fought stricter chromium standards at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Proctor also worked to revise a 1987 study that tied higher rates of stomach cancer among Chinese villagers to drinking water polluted with chromium. The revision was funded by PG&E, the company that Erin Brockovich fought in Hinkley. It concluded that chromium wasn't the cause after all. The published study didn't disclose the industry funding or the involvement of industry-funded scientists.
David Michaels, an epidemiologist who now heads OSHA, wrote a book about this brand of regulation-delaying science called Doubt Is their Product. "Their business model is straightforward," Michaels writes of these industry-funded scientists. "They profit by helping corporations minimize public health and environmental protection and fight claims of injury and illness. In field after field, year after year, this same handful of individuals come up again and again."
Industry Scientists Pack EPA Cancer Review Panel
The EPA's decision to reverse itself and delay the release of its findings was influenced by a panel of scientists hired by the agency to review the chromium findings. The potential conflicts of interest of those scientists were reviewed by an outside firm rather than by the EPA itself. Of those scientists, CPI found that three of the five had worked to defend PG&E in the Brockovich lawsuits.
But it isn't just PG&E-funded scientists that end up on EPA panels; and it isn't just decisions about chromium that are affected. CPI found that one out of every six scientists appointed to EPA review panels during the Obama administration had been a primary author of research articles funded by the ACC in the last 12 years. And that is just ACC-funded scientists, not those who are funded directly by chemical companies without going through the ACC.
Undue influence by industries paying for science is not just a perception; studies have confirmed that when industries pay for research, it may influence the outcome. And at the same time that the ACC funds research, it lobbies the EPA to ease regulations on those chemicals or urges the agency not to ban products containing them, according to CPI.
Non-Industry Scientists Need not Apply
Not only is the chemical industry disproportionately represented on EPA review panels, but scientists without these industry ties can be ousted due to industry pressure.
Deborah Rice is a Maine toxicologist whose research eventually led to a statewide ban of the use of the flame retardant chemical decaBDE, which is a possible carcinogen (the EPA eventually banned continued production of the chemical as well). She had no industry ties -- she worked for the state. After her work studying decaBDE in Maine, she was appointed to an EPA panel to study the same class of chemicals, brominated flame retardants. Makes sense, right?
But the ACC accused Rice of bias because, just before the panel was set to convene, Rice testified before the Maine State Legislature that decaBDE -- the chemical she'd studied for years -- should be banned. In a ten-page letter, the ACC urged the EPA to remove her from the panel because, it said, she "has been a fervent advocate of banning decaBDE -- the very sort of policy predisposition that has no place in an independent, objective peer review."
The panel completed its review, and the other panelists by and large agreed with Rice's conclusions. After all of their comments had been posted to the EPA's website, however, the EPA -- which, in the meantime, had met with the ACC about its complaints -- abruptly removed Rice's comments. "All of a sudden my comments disappeared as if I had never been part of this panel," Rice told CPI.
Chemical Corporation Interests vs. Public Health
Chromium (VI) is regulated in the workplace by OSHA as of 2006, and the California EPA issued an independent public health goal for limiting exposure to the chemical in 2011. The EPA's National Toxicology Program issued new research in January 2013 that undermines the theory of industry scientists that chromium is dangerous only in high doses. But the EPA still has not released its own assessment.
John Froines is a toxicologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was named to a "blue-ribbon panel" of scientists to review the science behind a new drinking water standard for California, but resigned due to concerns about other panelists' ties to industry. Thirteen years after the release of the film Erin Brockovich, Froines told CPI, "At this point, we shouldn't be debating the carcinogenicity. ... We should be at a place where we're looking for alternatives to the use of chromium. You're dealing with people's lives."