Shifting the burden for toxics with a sneaky website: one more reason Dourson shouldn’t lead EPA toxics office

Jack Pratt is Chemicals Campaign Director

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

With Congress back from recess, it is slated to take up the nomination of Michael Dourson to run the toxics office at EPA. Here are links to our recent blog posts documenting why we are deeply concerned about his nomination:

Starting with work he did for the tobacco industry, Dourson has made a career downplaying concerns about chemicals, from harmful pesticides to cancer-causing solvents, paid for that work by the same companies that make or use those chemicals.

In addition to his work as a toxicologist-for-hire, Dourson and his firm, TERA, have provided more public-facing services.  One of these, done with funding from the American Chemistry Council, was the “Kids+Chemicalsafety” website, now defunct, but still available online at the Internet Archive.

We wrote two earlier blog posts on that site, which can be found here and here.  Several points from those posts are worth revisiting, given that Dourson may now be in the position of speaking from a government post, rather than a private one.

As we pointed out when the website first appeared, the site presented itself as a neutral source of information: “Kids + Chemicals is your best source of balanced, scientifically accurate chemical health information. We will alert you to the latest chemical-related health concerns, but also let you know when you can relax.”

In fact, the site provided thinly disguised chemical industry spin about the safety of chemicals that sought to shift the burden of protection onto parents and consumers.

One page on toxic chemicals in toys noted: “[I]t is important to consider not just the chemical levels in the toy, but also whether they can cause an exposure above a safe level.”  The page urges parents to read the label on a toy (ignoring the fact that such labels on toys rarely if ever disclose chemical composition) and suggesting that concerned parents ensure that children keep the toys out of their mouths and wash their hands after playing with them.

The logo for the kids chemical safety website

For parents wondering just what is a “safe level,” another page offers old industry sops about risk assessment:  “All chemicals are toxic at some level. … For example, ingesting dihydrogen monoxide can cause harm to people at high exposure levels, but few people would want to ban di-hydrogen (H2) mono-oxide (O) – also known as ‘water.’”

A page on asthma listed many contributing risk factors:  “pet fur and dander, dust, cigarette smoke, mold, and pollen” and notes that “other common pollutants found in the air can also cause asthma, such as ozone and car exhaust.” As to chemicals in your home?  The page goes as far as to cite some peer-reviewed studies claiming a link – but quickly dismisses them, stating “most studies cannot link one individual chemical or product to the increase in wheezing or asthma-like symptoms,” despite vociferously arguing elsewhere on the site that only peer-reviewed studies of chemicals should be deemed credible.

An entry on flame retardant chemicals noted: “Until further information on toxicity from exposures to specific flame retardant chemicals is available, parents will need to make the decision on how best to protect their children by balancing the known risk of injury or death due to fire with the potential risk of adverse health effects from exposure to these chemicals.”

As we pointed out in those earlier posts, the biggest problem with the website is its sneakiness.  EDF’s Richard Denison noted: “I would have no beef with TERA’s website if it described itself as what it is:  a source of information that reflects its own or the industry’s positions and perspective, and is intended to provide a counterpoint to what parents or consumers may be hearing from others, EDF included.”

That gets to the heart of our concerns about Dourson’s nomination to run the toxics office at EPA. After decades of living with a dysfunctional law, we desperately need a credible chemicals program at EPA—one that the public and the business community alike can trust to make difficult calls on chemical safety. By nominating someone who has deliberately muddied the waters on chemical safety issues, President Trump is doing just the opposite. Confirming Dourson would further undermine the toxics program at EPA and signal an abandonment of the progress just made through TSCA reform last year.


Current EPA political appointees already include a number of industry insiders.
Click here to see brief thumbnails on individuals who have already been installed.

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