Chemical Industry Bigwig Headed to the U.S. EPA
By Melanie Benesh
The Trump administration just appointed a chemical industry bigwig to a high-level chemical safety position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
You read that right. Nancy Beck is coming to the EPA straight from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the powerful lobby whose members include Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, ExxonMobil Chemical, Chevron Phillips Chemical and Bayer. Now she'll be making decisions as the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA department whose stated mission is to "protect you, your family, and the environment from potential risks from pesticides and toxic chemicals."
Here's three things to know about Nancy Beck:
1. She has helped craft the chemical industry's political agenda for years.
Before being appointed to her new position, Beck worked for the ACC as senior director for regulatory science policy in the Division of Regulatory and Technical Affairs. In that position, she helped draft the industry's positions on chemical legislation before Congress and key regulations at the EPA and other agencies—including the major chemical reform bill that passed last year. Just last month, she testified before a House committee and advocated for EPA to adopt ACC's scientific approach to evaluating chemical safety.
In her new position at EPA she'll oversee the agency's decisions on chemical safety—decisions that will directly affect your health as well as the financial interests of ACC's member companies.
2. A House committee once called her out for "very disturbing" attempts to undermine EPA science.
Before joining the ACC, Beck was one of a handful of White House scientists who reviewed EPA regulations for the Office of Budget and Management —a job she started under the Bush Administration in 2002. During her tenure, that office increasingly scrutinized EPA chemical safety evaluations, resulting in significant delays.
In 2009, a report by the House Science and Technology Committee called her out by name for her efforts to rewrite and at times undermine EPA's assessments of toxic chemicals. Specifically, the report found a Beck comment on a proposed EPA evaluation of a group of flame retardants to be "very disturbing because it represents a substantive editorial change regarding how to characterize the science." It went on to say that her proposed changes "appear to enhance uncertainty" and that "the whole point of the exercise was to delay."
In other words, she used her position in the executive branch to water down EPA's conclusions about chemical safety and unduly delay finalization of risk assessments. Now she'll be overseeing how those conclusions get drafted at the agency.
3. She's been a vocal critic of EPA's chemical safety findings, despite her own "fundamentally flawed" approach to chemical safety.
Beck has been described as a "powerful critic" of EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS program, which researches chemical toxicity. IRIS assessments have traditionally played a big role in informing the rules that EPA and state governments adopt to protect people from toxic chemicals. Beck has frequently criticized the program and its conclusions, especially when they suggest the need to reduce pollution.
When Beck was a scientist in the George W. Bush administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, she helped write a controversial draft guidance that would have revamped and undermined the way EPA and other agencies evaluate chemical safety. That guidance was eventually withdrawn and significantly scaled back after the National Academy of Sciences criticized her proposed approach as "fundamentally flawed."
In her new post, Beck will be free to ignore IRIS findings and direct her office to make chemical safety decisions based on her preferred kinds of studies and scientific methods. She could also play a role in eliminating the IRIS chemical toxicity assessments altogether—something proposed by the Trump administration in a leaked memo.
Melanie Benesh analyzes federal food, farm and chemical law as legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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