Think Tank Blasts Chemical Regulation

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Chemical companies have sometimes failed to provide the government with sufficient or relevant data to judge whether a chemical is safe for commercial use, alleges a book released at a press conference here today by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit think tank. The center recommends that the government be more vigilant in reviewing data submitted by industry, and that it should review more frequently studies published by nonindustry sources.

Three years ago, CPI, whose board consists mainly of journalists, commissioned an investigation of the federal government's regulation of toxic chemicals. Under the current system, chemical companies perform safety tests or farm them out to contractors, then submit data for review at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies. The CPI project, led by journalists Dan Fagin of Newsday and Marianne Lavelle of the National Law Journal, in part analyzed 161 studies of four chemicals reviewed over the last 25 years: two pesticides--alachlor and atrazine--the industrial solvent formaldehyde, and the dry-cleaning agent perchloroethylene.

Fagin and Lavelle report in their book, Toxic Deception, that of 43 industry-funded studies, only six "returned unfavorable results." Based on these tests, the EPA has deemed the chemicals safe for commerce. Yet, say Fagin and Lavelle, of 118 studies conducted by nonindustry researchers, many of which were not submitted for EPA review, 71 were unfavorable.

"Disclosure [of all relevant data] is generally pretty lame," says CPI director Charles Lewis. "What's striking to me is the inability of EPA to come to grips with this." An EPA spokesperson declined to comment. But Don Helin, a spokesperson for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, says that EPA for years gave unclear guidance to companies about what kinds of data should be submitted. "The industry does take exception to the implication that it purposely acted in bad faith," Helin says.

Lewis acknowledges that EPA and other agencies can't afford to shoulder the burden of carrying out the safety tests themselves. Instead, he and the Toxic Deception authors suggest that the government should vet all existing data and inform the public about more benign alternatives to pesticides and other industrial chemicals. CPI plans in the next several days to post on the Web a trove of documents not included in the book.