Chemical Industry Clout Delays EPA Regulation of Hexavalent Chromium

Contaminated Jug of Water at Hinkley Meeting (Source: PBS)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

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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."


A study released in 2010 by the California Cancer Registry showed that cancer rates in Hinkley "remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008." An epidemiologist involved in the study said that "the 196 cases of cancer reported during the most recent survey of 1996 through 2008 were less than what he would expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer." This author is uninformed and obviously has a biased opinion. Industry scientists are usually the best around. That is why they are solicited for scientific panels. Science doesn't lie, people do. PG&E was harassed into paying a $333 million settlement of which, Brokovich's firm got $133 million dollars. The legal suit was not "won" by anyone. That's the way most big class action suits work. The law firm gets rich for harassing a company until they decide that it will cost more to keep being harassed than to just pay them to stop harassing. Chromium is a very heavily regulated chemical. If she can't even find those facts out correctly, what can she "investigate" properly?

Nick, you're so *clever*! More clever than informed, it seems. Large corporations don't settle lawsuits they can win: they owe that to their shareholders. Further, settlements usually have gag clauses attached -- because the corporations don't want people to know how much they actually paid out. And yes, "science" *does* lie. Please research funder bias, and you'll find the many ways in which studies are designed to provide the "desired" result. Please research the process for licensing new chemicals (including pesticides, drugs and vaccines) and you'll see that that process is far from being impartial. And ... guess who's getting favored in all that partiality? Hint: it's not "the taxpayer" or "the common citizen." Or you -- unless it's your job to troll along e-mail lists like this and plump for the corps.

Really? Some educational materials for you at: See you in before the Jurys's bench State and Fedral venues. Nick Panchev A real name Note: I do not utilize names, such as "Anonymous2:

Your the uninformed the professor that did the study based it on the census track that includes Hinkley which more than tripled then number of residents it also did not track down the many families who left and then subsequently had family members die of cancer that is directly related to chromium 6 and cancer is just one of many medical problems that is caused by hexavalient chromium I have talked to the researcher from the cancer registry he just needed to get published and he travels around talking about his fraudulent lazy study I am a layman but have spent a couple of years learning about chromium 6 and how bad it is to humans you need to take the time to learn everything before writing your opinion based of one professor who did it completely research his subject and based it off of a incorrect number remember I spoke to him he works a Loma Limda university and for the cancer registry for San Bernardino county and I new more about the carcenagine then he did. Do not let big business fog your mind they lie, cheat and kill all in the name of money

Scientists have certainly been known to skew figures and base opinion slanted in favor of the industry whom pays them. Expert testimony is routinely given in courts, again, paid by a company to a scientist or doctor that will provide desired editorial toward swaying a judge or jury to favorable outcome. What makes you think (all) scientists are ethical?

Really? Some educational materials for you at: Let see who is going to prevail, in three venues: State Superior, Federal District and State Criminal, not limited to before State and Federal Grand Jury, State and Federal DOJ. What about if goes before the European Union judicial system / tribunal. What about if in the Worldwide news media? US Securities and Exchange Commission mat want to revisit those quarterly and annual reports by PG&E Corp. particularly of disclosed "one time charge off" so the investors can see. (PG&E is and IOU) Are you, as well, one of the investors in this IOU?

Final comment to: Anonymous2 See PG&E settles now and again, for millions You lost again, as alway. F+++++