Dourson emails show he was paid by and worked closely with ACC when providing states “advice” on chemicals made by ACC members

Richard Denison, a Lead Senior Scientist.

[Use this link to see all of our posts on Dourson.]

I blogged last week about how a trove of emails recently released by the New York Times shines a light on the cozy relationship between Michael Dourson, who just withdrew his nomination to run the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) toxics office, and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the main chemical industry trade association. 

Dourson email to ACC staffer: "We should talk while I am still able to do so directly. I am not sure what limitations I will have with outside groups."

You might ask why I’m blogging again about these emails.  It’s because they provide a rare and fascinating inside look at how – and how closely – paid consultants, who often tout themselves to the public and state and federal agencies as independent and objective arbiters of sound science, work with industry.  In this post I’ll describe what the emails tell us about Dourson’s work with state governments – and point to a “Bcc” in one of those emails that raises a big red flag.  

Dourson and his consulting firm, Toxicology Excellence in Risk Assessment (TERA), have long touted their work for state governments as evidence that they are not just hired guns for industry.  TERA, which has now morphed into the Risk Science Center at the University of Cincinnati, even offers a free service to states:

The StateHELP (Hazard Evaluation Lending Program) allows states to receive up to 10 hours annually of technical support from the Center scientists free of charge. States can take advantage of this project by requesting either technical support for risk assessment problems over the telephone, or requesting a written review of one of the state's risk assessments.

Dourson has worked hard to create the impression that his paid work for the chemical industry was wholly distinct from his work with government agencies.

So, in reading through the new collection of Dourson emails, my interest was piqued by the fact that quite a few of the emails are discussing work Dourson had been doing with officials in states like Missouri and Indiana.  One project focused on 1,4-dioxane – a chemical for which, in a 2014 paper paid for by PPG Industries, Dourson had recommended a “safe” level in drinking water 1,000 times less protective than EPA’s guideline.

In a July 2017 email exchange between Dourson and ACC Senior Director Steve Risotto (see page 34), Dourson refers to this earlier work on the chemical, done through his Alliance for Risk Assessment (ARA).  The state of Kentucky among others had requested Dourson’s help with this chemical.  Dourson tells ACC:

By the way, this is a great example of the value of the Alliance for Risk Assessment (ARA) for it allowed multiple states to step up and offer time (not money), and now that they have participated, it is an easier argument for industry to make to the EPA. (emphasis added)

He then suggests that ACC consider a donation to support his work through ARA.

What Dourson means by his reference to making things “easier” for industry by getting states involved becomes even clearer in another email chain, this one involving trichloroethylene (TCE).  Bear with me as I walk through it.

In March 2017, one of Dourson’s colleagues at his Risk Science Center emails a large group offering to do briefings on TCE at contaminated sites, touting Dourson’s recently published paper on that topic (see pages 251-2).  That paper we have blogged about before:  It was funded by ACC, published in Dourson’s go-to industry-funded journal, and argued for a standard – called a reference concentration, or RfC – that was up to 15 times weaker than EPA’s.

In April, a health official for the state of Missouri requests a briefing, noting that “Missouri has a number of TCE sites across the state that we have been struggling with given the uncertainties related to the short-term exposure concern of fetal heart malformations.”  Dourson promptly replies with an offer to “assist you in any way we can,” noting he is already working with Indiana and planning a workshop on the same matter.

A month later, in May, after some phone calls, the state official provides Dourson with a copy of “questions that we have posed to EPA and ATSDR on the uncertainties related to the short-term TCE exposure concern of fetal heart malformations” (see bottom of page 246).  She copies that email to some or her colleagues at the health department and two state consultants.

And here’s where it gets even more interesting:  Dourson emails back, mentioning a planning call with Indiana officials on the workshop “that includes specific discussions of the range of likely values [sic] TCE … RfCs based on a recent publication.”  That publication is of course the ACC-funded one I mentioned earlier.

Dourson’s reply back includes all of the people copied on the email to which he was responding, as well as several Indiana officials he adds to the “cc” list.  But he also blind-copies Steve Risotto of ACC (see top of page 246).  Now why would he send that email to ACC – and keep the fact that he was doing so secret from Missouri and Indiana officials?

Yet more emails the next month make clear Risotto and ACC are fully involved in Dourson’s “state outreach” work.  In late June, in a chain with the subject line “Draft Response to IDEM [Indiana Department of Environmental Management] comments on September Non-cancer Workshop,” Dourson emails those state consultants (this time not including state officials) and copies Risotto, letting them know – 3 weeks before it will become official and public – that he is to be nominated to head up EPA’s toxics office.  Dourson adds:  “I would appreciate you keeping this information under wraps until the announcement.”  Risotto responds with his congratulations to “Professor D.” (see page 61).

Dourson replies back (see page 59):

[w]e should talk while I am still able to do so directly. I am not sure what limitations I will have with outside groups (probably pretty open), but I will be restricted to talking with UC [University of Cincinnati] folks for 1 year.

On the state outreach we are cooking along with IDEM for a workshop in September. They were looking to get Nancy Beck to give an opening talk, which might work out nicely. IDEM has also included Missouri, and we are now may be [sic] asking if Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky are available to join the party. The budget you gave us should be able to stretch through this workshop and perhaps a wee bit more– depending on how big the workshop actually gets.

This is a remarkable email in several ways. First, Dourson is telling ACC’s Risotto that they should talk now before any possible ethics constraints kick in.  Second, he provides Risotto with an update on the expanding state outreach work intended to amplify Dourson’s and ACC’s views regarding “uncertainty” associated with TCE risks.  The reference to inviting Nancy Beck to speak at the state workshop is also telling:  Beck, who was then already (and is still) at EPA running the toxics office pending Senate confirmation of Dourson’s nomination, had arrived at EPA fresh from a senior director position at ACC, where she was a colleague of Risotto’s and led the charge in ACC’s opposition to EPA’s risk assessments of TCE. Third, Dourson’s reference to “the budget you gave us” makes clear that ACC is helping to bankroll the state outreach effort.

To summarize:  Dourson is paid by ACC to help cast doubt on EPA’s risk assessment work on TCE.  He then uses that work as a basis to try to convince state agencies to also question EPA’s work – an effort that ACC also funds him to do.  Dourson seems also to seek to keep that connection secret from the states.  Meanwhile, Dourson touts his state outreach work as evidence that he is independent and objective and not merely an industry hired gun – all the while carrying water for the industry in that very same work.

Unfortunately, this way of undertaking conflicted, often masked work is not limited to Dourson; it applies to a whole network of paid industry consultants.  In this case, because of the emails we get a rare glimpse into how deep the connections run.



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One Comment

  1. Mark
    Posted December 22, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    This tells the story of the real Swamp that is Washington DC. Science for sale to industry, astroturf lobbying groups and legislators who need to raise money to stay in office all keep the wheels turning. Its not new and I suspect it will continue until our representatives summon their internal moral character and are willing to change it.