EPA Chemical Safety Nominee Is a Hired Gun for Tobacco and Chemical Industries
By Jack Pratt
For decades, a weak law left Americans at risk from toxic chemicals in everyday products such as cleaners and fabrics. As a result, chemicals tied to infertility, learning disabilities and even cancer found their way into all our homes, schools and workplaces.
A turn-around looked likely in 2016 when Congress passed a strong, bipartisan law to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act to better protect our health. The agency charged with carrying out the new law hit the ground running and was making good progress.
That is, until a new president was elected and new leadership took over the reins at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Trump administration first installed a top official from the main chemical industry lobbying group to oversee changes to rules that will determine how chemicals are reviewed for safety. The changes she made could undermine efforts to protect us from harmful chemicals for many years to come, according to Politico.
The push to return America to its toxic past may now accelerate with Trump's subsequent nomination of Michael Dourson to run the EPA's entire chemical safety program.
Dourson has made a career as a hired gun for the chemical industry, helping clients play down concerns over toxic chemicals with known and potentially severe health effects.
Defended tobacco and Teflon
If confirmed to the top job at the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Dourson will be regulating his old industry friends. It's a pattern we keep seeing with Trump's administration as the president and his appointees turn the federal government's mission to protect public health on its head.
Dourson's paid work for industry goes back several decades and includes work he did for the tobacco industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Also on his resume is his work involving the "Teflon" chemical PFOA, which continues to affect drinking water in places such as West Virginia, Ohio, New York and Vermont. And he worked for the manufacturer of the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos, which Dourson defended and the Trump EPA decided not to ban despite expert calls to do so.
Dourson: Toxic toys? Kids should wash hands
Among other things, Dourson's company used industry money to develop and run a now-defunct website, "kidschemicalsafety.org," with copy penned by staff from chemical industry consulting firms who sought to put chemical hazards "into context."
The website told parents, for example, that even water can be toxic at high exposure levels, "but few people would want to ban" water.
It also played down concerns about chemicals in products such as toys, shifting the burden to parents by suggesting they make sure to read labels, keep toys out of their children's mouths, and make sure kids wash their hands after playing.
His defense: Jesus hung out with shady people, too
Of course, none of Dourson's work will come as a shock to anyone who has followed industry tactics closely. Whether professional climate deniers or big tobacco, manufacturing doubt is a well-known dark art.
The problem here is that if the Senate votes to confirm him, Dourson will speak from a government office.
Running the toxics office at the EPA is unlikely to change Dourson's outlook. After all, this is the man who defended his work for tobacco to downplay concerns about second-hand smoke by saying "Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors."
That logic may help Dourson sleep at night, but it won't provide much solace to those of us who were hoping the new law would do a better job protecting us from toxic chemicals.
Jack Pratt is the chemicals campaign director at Environmental Defense Fund.