On October 21, the New York Times published a story chronicling the frustrations of a now-retired EPA scientist involved in drafting the new chemical safety regulations required by the 2016 Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act (LCSA).
As the story goes, benevolent EPA scientists like Wendy Cleland-Hamnett wrote the rules that would protect people and the environment from toxic chemicals, while industry operatives, including the EPA's recently appointed Dr. Nancy Beck, undermined their efforts in the name of expediency and profit.
We’ve heard this story before. It’s not unique to chemical safety issues or this law, nor is it exclusive to this agency's cast of characters or the decisions of this presidential administration. The classic hero and villain narrative is meant to discredit policy decisions and demonize those responsible for them.
Everyone loves a “David and Goliath” story, but in the case of the EPA's Cleland-Hamnett against the Big Bad Industry's Beck, distilling complex chemical regulatory laws and their often mind-numbing administrative process into a “good read” vastly distorts the policy debate. Stories like these are based on several premises that are promoted by environmental activists and their allies:
- Anyone who has worked with “the industry” du jour is unqualified to serve in government.
- Anyone in disagreement with environmentalists is dishonest, motivated by money, and anti-science, and their perspectives should be discounted.
- The message may be bad, but the messenger is worse. We must attack their work and their integrity.
Consider, for example, California's 1986 fight to pass Proposition 65. Today, the environmental law is responsible for the proliferation of “WARNING”s that everything from coffee to high heels will give you cancer.
The law was intended to prevent businesses from intentionally fouling public drinking water, but industry and legal experts who spoke out against Proposition 65's broad language were dragged through the mud as pollution apologists. The Los Angeles Times once dismissed the concerns that Prop 65 could result in a warning label “on every cup of coffee” as gross exaggerations from oil, agricultural, and chemical interests.
But California’s leading newspaper reversed the course of its industry criticism just last month following a Prop 65 lawsuit that could very well require a cancer warning on every cup of coffee sold in the state — in spite of broad evidence that coffee does not cause cancer and may, in fact, offer a protective effect against the disease.
The Los Angeles Times had the benefit of three decades' removal from the initial Prop 65 fight so as to not be labeled chemical industry apologists by suggesting the environmental law be amended or replaced. But the October 21 New York Times exposé fully embraced the “industry vs. public health” narrative, reducing a complex debate over reasonable risk and the role of government into a classic catfight between two women.
The truth is, all industries have a degree of self-interest in employing and engaging highly qualified individuals. Occasionally, these individuals bring their invaluable real-world experience to government agencies. Just as academics and activists can provide valuable input, so too can those involved in developing the ingredients that make products safer, more environmentally friendly, or less costly.
Activists and grant-driven academics are as much an “industry” as the publicly traded companies that create the products of chemistry. Their livelihoods and their employers are supported by billions of dollars in government research grants and donations from ideologically aligned private donors.
Bias and conflict of interest are regularly invoked to discredit industry-associated scientists, but an honest assessment would acknowledge that academic and environmental communities are often even more dependent on a particular outcome because the credibility of their past studies or new funding for their institution may be put at risk following a conflicting discovery in the future.
For those interested in achieving the most robust public health policies, diversity of opinion should be celebrated, not demonized.