Health News Digest

October 18, 2010

When EPA Overreaches, Someone Always Gets Hurt

Stop Breathing

By  Michael D. Shaw

When EPA was founded in December of 1970, there was no shortage of serious environmental issues to tackle. Water pollution was symbolized by taconite tailings being dumped into Lake Superior in Silver Bay, MN, and the travesty of fires on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River—the most notable of which occurred on June 22, 1969. Air pollution was widespread, and many people remembered the killer smog that occurred in London in 1952, as well a stateside version in Donora, PA four years earlier.

No doubt, remarkable progress has been made in cleaning up the environment, and EPA deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

However, within the very DNA of the agency is a strong dose of chemophobia. Even though the “science” in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been thoroughly debunked, her work is still cited with great reverence on EPA’s website in “The Birth of EPA.” Sadly, the tortured thoughts of Carson, an embittered woman dying of breast cancer, would have been just that, until the agency banned DDT.

Cold comfort to the millions of Africans—who died from malaria as a direct result of this—that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who still thinks the banning was a good idea.

It is important to note that cold, calculated politics in the main reason for anything any government entity ever does. If there actually is any altruism, it occurs by accident. Perhaps EPA was Richard Nixon’s attempt to prove his Green bona fides. At any rate, in 1970, there was plenty of legitimate work to be done.

The trouble is that by 1985 or thereabouts, most of the big problems were taken care of. But no federal agency ever disappears. Instead, the mission is expanded. With most of the obvious dragons slain, EPA could now focus on the much more murky world of potential problems, and would gradually increase its activities under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.

The newest trend under TSCA—announced by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on December 30, 2009—is the so-called Chemical Action Plan (CAP). Lynn Bergeson, a well-known DC-based attorney specializing in regulatory issues, commented at the time:

This EPA initiative announces actions that are almost breathtaking in scope, and its development and implementation of the action plan items will set a number of new precedents—and possibly shape future legislative proposals—that industry will need to participate in and monitor closely. EPA has never previously announced so many actions under TSCA, nor has it ever cited use of Section 6 [of TSCA] so widely. Moreover, that it was issued in this form after being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget is significant and portends potentially great and largely unfettered EPA activity in the months to come.

Unfettered, indeed. With no congressional oversight, scant accountability, and the less-than-transparent manner in which chemicals are chosen for CAP treatment, many are concerned about the consequences—unintended or otherwise.

On March 17, 2010, EPA announced that it was working on CAPs for several more chemicals, including siloxanes—a class of organosilicon compounds that is used in deodorants, soaps, windshield coatings, and sundry cosmetic and automotive products. Significantly, there are medical applications, as well.

Siloxanes are found in intravenous drug delivery systems, prostheses, pacemakers, dental molds, wound dressings, respirator bags, medical adhesives, and contact lenses. These compounds are relied upon in scar treatment and cosmetic and ophthalmic surgery. Even hypodermic needles are coated with siloxanes to reduce pain, making them of considerable value to children and diabetics.

You might ask why EPA is concerned about a class of compounds that has been utilized with apparent safety for decades. Good question. Let’s call it a perversion of the scientific method. The classic scientific method first requires an observation. Then, and only then, a hypothesis is suggested to explain this observation, and this hypothesis is tested by an experiment. If the hypothesis is verified by this experiment, it must be repeated by others, until its truth is accepted by the scientific community.

Back in the day, carcinogenic chemicals were determined to be such after people had observed an unusually high incidence of a particular cancer in the cohort of interest. Then, animal studies were done to verify the hypothesis.

Now, though, things have changed. Far too many “scientists,” who are really little more than technicians, can achieve lifetime job security by picking some chemical—especially one that is in wide commercial use—and give outrageous doses of it to a rodent. If an effect is observed, then “further study is warranted” and the chemical is put on the bad list. It matters not in the least that empirically, in actual human experience, there have been no observable ill effects.

This is not science at all. Rather, it is fear entrepreneurialism writ large—the economic impact of which can hardly be overstated.

Fortunately, Congress is currently considering legislation to reform TSCA, and by inference, EPA. Let’s hope this can occur before siloxanes and other safe and important chemicals become stigmatized or banned.