TCS Daily

The Science Haters Target Johnson

By Gilbert Ross - April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Stephen L. Johnson, President Bush's nominee as EPA Administrator, is the first career scientist considered for this key position. All agree that the EPA could do with a good dose of science -- or do they?

Science has traditionally been in short supply at the EPA -- politics and ideology generally rule the day (it was under the first EPA boss, William Ruckelshaus, that DDT was banned in 1972, in direct contempt of his own scientific advisors, leading directly to the deaths of millions from malaria in the Third World). So it was a hopeful sign when the name of Mr. Johnson was put forward, seemingly blemished by neither politics nor ideology.

But the environmentalist fringe found something to attack him for: a never-implemented program, proposed last year, to assess the exposure and effects of common household chemicals and pesticides on toddlers in the Jacksonville, Florida area. This analysis, brightly called CHEERS (Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study), aimed to use financial inducements to poor families (almost one thousand dollars each) to allow investigators to monitor their youngsters' exposure to common household products over the course of two years.

This doesn't sound like a big deal -- to those of us concerned with accumulating scientific data to benefit the American consumer. But activist groups -- especially the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), to no one's surprise -- and two U.S. senators have accused Johnson of everything from conspiring with industry to child molestation in their intemperate assaults on his never-initiated (and now canceled) program. Why did Johnson initially think this would be a useful program?

Prior to becoming the acting EPA administrator in January of this year, Mr. Johnson was directly in charge of implementing the nation's pesticide, toxic substances, and pollution prevention laws in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances (OPPTS). He knew, as a scientist, that it would be useful to try to gather toxicity data from human exposures, rather than from the animal experiments upon which the EPA has always relied. The animal data has been found wanting as a basis for assigning human risk. The tricky part: how to gather human data ethically: i.e., without knowingly exposing humans to toxic substances. The answer: just by observing kids in their "natural habitats," since it is known that the large majority of families in the proposed study area use household chemicals and pesticides routinely. Why not just observe them and gather data?

Indeed, just to be completely secure, Johnson requested an opinion from the National Academy of Sciences on the ethics of collecting human data in such circumstances. Their committee's conclusion was that it was acceptable to gather and utilize such information if appropriate safeguards and standards were adhered to. That seemed to be a go-ahead for the CHEERS study.

Johnson made two serious blunders, however: he offered to compensate the study families, and he arranged to get funding support from the American Chemistry Council.

Environmental activists went ballistic -- even more so than usual. The EWG asserted that a study done on humans in which people could not derive any health benefits was ipso facto taboo. And worse: partnering with a chemical group? In a study on children? Are you kidding -- not on my watch! (Even though the EPA routinely works with regulated industries to assess environmental risks, often with funding from those same industries.)

The environmentalists' real gripe is somewhat less likely to be articulated in the media: these groups have fought tooth and nail against using human toxicity data because they know quite well that such data will show no evidence of harm to humans from the so-called "toxins" in our environment. Their dependence on the "Precautionary Principle," wherein a lack of data mandates restrictions out of "safety" concerns, would finally be shown for what it is: an excuse for agenda-driven regulation.

What about the stonewalling of the aggrieved senators? Sen. Nelson, Democrat of Florida, actually said, "I'm going to stand up for the health and safety of children in my state." He proposed to do this by delaying Stephen Johnson's confirmation as EPA administrator, though surely he could find better ways to improve children's health. I suspect his obstruction of Johnson's appointment due to the abortive toxics study is related more to political posturing than to anyone's health or safety. He and his colleagues should let Johnson assume the EPA post and stop the political posturing. The Johnson confirmation is a win-win scenario, for sound science and for the EPA.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health.


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