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How Industry Twists Science to Downplay the Dangers of Toxic Chemicals
The most egregious flaw of the United States’ toothless and outdated system of regulating chemicals is the failure to adequately and independently test chemicals for safety. Because of the Environmental Protection Agency’s woeful shortage of resources, manufacturers submit their own data to vouch for new chemicals, and most studies of existing chemicals are conducted by for-profit consultants selected and paid by the very companies whose products they’re evaluating.
Chemical companies should have to pay for testing their products, but they shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who does the work. Two major journalistic investigations published recently reveal how the chemical industry has hijacked the current system – not only through the findings of scientists-for-hire but by shaping the actual methods of regulatory toxicology to downplay the health risks. This double-barreled perversion of science skews regulation of notorious hazards such as formaldehyde as well as emerging threats like bisphenol A, or BPA, a hormone disrupting chemical used in food packaging and cash register receipts, and glyphosate, a carcinogen that is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer.
Reporting for The Intercept through open-records requests, Sharon Lerner obtained the studies EPA relied on when it concluded last summer that there was “no convincing evidence” that glyphosate, the most widely-used herbicide in the U.S. and worldwide, disrupts hormones. She found that “the decision was based almost entirely on pesticide industry studies”:
Only five independently funded studies were considered in the review of whether glyphosate interferes with the endocrine system. Twenty-seven out of 32 studies . . . were either conducted or funded by industry. Most of the studies were sponsored by Monsanto or an industry group called the Joint Glyphosate Task Force. One study was by Syngenta, which sells its own glyphosate-containing herbicide, Touchdown.
How did the funding affect the findings? Three of the five independent studies found that glyphosate interferes with the functioning of hormones, but not one of the 27 industry-sponsored studies concluded that glyphosate is harmful. Although data from many of the industry studies suggested harm and the rats in some studies died, in each case the researchers discounted or dismissed those findings.
That case involves twisting the interpretation of data on a specific chemical. But a six-month investigation by Valerie Brown and Elizabeth Grossman for In These Times magazine dug deeper.
They found that 30 years ago scientists working for the Defense Department, which is responsible for more than two-thirds of America’s 1,300 heavily polluted Superfund sites, began promoting the use of computer simulations to track how chemicals affect people’s bodies. This method, known as PBPK modeling, is cheaper and faster than doing tests on animals or in a test tube, but the results are only as good as the information used to set up the model:
Many biologists say PBPK-based risk assessments begin with assumptions that are too narrow, and thus often fail to fully capture how a chemical exposure can affect health . . . Because of its reliance on whatever data are included, PBPK modeling can be deliberately manipulated to produce desired outcomes.
The Pentagon wanted to minimize costly cleanups of chemicals such as perchlorate, the explosive ingredient in rocket fuel. But corporate interests also saw that computer modeling could be used, as one company memo said, to blunt “excessively conservative” regulations that could lead to “unnecessary expensive controls” and place “constraints on important industrial processes.” Results from PBPK studies by industry-funded consultants, Brown and Grossman wrote, have consistently “downplayed the risk and delayed the regulation” of formaldehyde, styrene, tricholorethylene, BPA and the pesticide chlorpyrifos, among many other hazardous chemicals.
The widespread use of computer modeling has sparked increasing tension between scientists who use it and health-effects researchers who look at the actual effects of a chemical on the body. Their escalating feud is not an esoteric academic debate but a battle for the use of sound science to inform regulations so as to protect public health – not corporate profits.
As the conflict continues, health-effects researchers are leaving their ivory towers and becoming outspoken about the way PBPK studies are being used to promote weak regulations. They believe that if Americans knew how industry manipulates science to keep dangerous chemicals on the market, citizens would demand change. Brown and Grossman noted:
Scientists typically shy away from activism, but many now believe it’s what’s needed to punch through the machinations and inertia regarding chemical regulation. . . Or, as the University of California’s Bruce Blumberg said, “I think we need to take the fight to the people.”