Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.
An increasingly common tactic in modern bare-knuckle politics is to divert attention away from your own weakness or vulnerability by loudly – and falsely – accusing your opponent of having that very defect you possess but won’t admit to.
That Rovian tactic was on display last week, with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) as the accuser, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) as its “opponent.” Mind you, NTP is the nation’s leading authoritative body on cancer-causing chemicals.
The precipitating event? NTP’s long-overdue release of its 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC). Among other additions NTP made since its last report was published way back in 2005, it had the audacity – according to ACC – to:
- upgrade its classification of formaldehyde to “Known to be a human carcinogen,” from its earlier classification (dating back to 1981) as “Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and
- for the first time include styrene on its list of chemicals linked to cancer, classifying it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
The accusation hurled at NTP was this gem from ACC President and CEO, Cal Dooley:
“We are extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process and believe this report by HHS is an egregious contradiction to what the President said early in his administration, ‘…That science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration…’.”
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black (per the “second, subtler interpretation” of that phrase).
Now, I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect that ACC would ever accept two of the largest volume chemicals in commerce being officially labeled as known or probable carcinogens. Both formaldehyde and styrene are produced by dozens of companies in the U.S., each in amounts totaling tens of billions of pounds annually – major cash cows for the chemical industry.
That’s enough profit, I suppose, to make anyone be inclined to cling a bit. Indeed, ACC veers toward misty-eyed when it describes formaldehyde as a “simple molecule made of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon” that is “a natural part of our world” – conveniently omitting that it is a known cause of nasopharyngeal cancers in people and the culprit in the poisoning of victims of Hurricane Katrina forced into FEMA trailers.
And one could perhaps even understand their taking issue with NTP’s finding of a causal link between formaldehyde and certain types of leukemia, given that EPA’s draft assessment of formaldehyde was recently criticized on that score by a panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC), who called out EPA’s lack of clarity and transparency in its methodology and its failure to identify a plausible mechanism by which the chemical could cause the disease. NTP as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have placed greater weight than did the NRC panel on the rather compelling human epidemiological evidence in finding a causal link between formaldehyde exposure and certain leukemias. (It should also be noted that the NRC panel fully backed EPA’s finding that links formaldehyde to nasopharyngeal cancers.) So it’s probably fair to say that the linkage to leukemia is still an issue in scientific dispute, on one side of which NTP has clearly come down.
But for ACC, with its massive vested commercial interest in these chemicals, to accuse NTP of playing politics with the science is really beyond the pale. On what basis does it assert such an outrageous claim? As NRDC’s Jennifer Sass has noted on her blog, it is the chemical industry that has held up the 12th report for more than four years, and has used every means at its disposal to delay EPA’s assessments of these chemicals for even longer. Jennifer writes:
The 12th RoC formaldehyde classification of a known human carcinogen is consistent with the determination by the World Health Organization, EPA, and a recent National Academies review (see my blog here for details and links). Specifically, all these prestigious scientific bodies identified cancer risks of the nasal cavity, and some types of leukemia. It was the leukemia risks that the chemical industry fought so hard against, even though the evidence comes from human epidemiology of industrial workers and embalmers. In fact, industry has used political pressure to hold up EPA's scientific assessment for 13 years, since 1998, and it's still in draft form.
Styrene has been tied up in similar political knots. Styrene is used to manufacture many plastics, latex paints, synthetic rubbers, polyesters and coatings. It is also approved for use in food-contact materials, and as an FDA-approved synthetic flavoring in ice cream and candy (see 12th RoC fact sheet here, and EPA fact sheet here). It is regulated as a Hazardous Air Pollutant by EPA, and considered possibly carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization. EPA has been trying to update its styrene assessment since 1998, with no end in sight.
ACC’s hardball smear tactics in pushing back against the strong science-based findings that have led authorities around the world to classify formaldehyde and styrene as known and probable carcinogens, respectively, smacks of desperation. It’s dirty politics, it’s false, and it should stop.