Michael Dourson, the toxicologist who will be the subject of a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for what many consider the second most powerful post at the Environmental Protection Agency, has been hired by industry to consult on at least 30 of the chemicals he may be responsible for reviewing if he assumes office.
Dourson’s consulting company, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, was paid by Dow Chemical, CropLife America, the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, and other companies and industry groups to study dozens of chemicals. The evaluations TERA produced consistently failed to recognize threats that were clear to scientists and regulators not on the companies’ payrolls.
If confirmed as director of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Dourson will be in a position to set safety levels for many of the same chemicals his company was paid to defend, including nine pesticides scheduled for scrutiny and 20 industrial compounds that may be evaluated under the recently updated chemical safety law.
Dourson would also be in a position to make decisions affecting chlorpyrifos, another pesticide he’s been paid to research, which can cause memory, intelligence, attention, and motor problems in children. Based on numerous studies that found that very low doses of the pesticide can harm children’s brains, the EPA proposed banning chlorpyrifos in 2016. In research paid for by Dow, the manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, Dourson came up with a safety threshold that was some 5,000 times less protective than what the EPA recommended for children between the ages of one and two.
After reversing the proposed ban, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently delayed the evaluation of both chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates, the chemical class to which it belongs, which had been scheduled to begin in 2017. Dourson would have input on the timing of those evaluations, as well as the research considered in them. About two dozen organophosphate pesticides are commercially available, all of which are neurotoxins.
Environmental scientists have long recognized that children are especially vulnerable to chemicals, including organophosphates, throughout their development. But in a 2002 paper paid for by the American Chemistry Council and the pesticide industry group CropLife America, Dourson suggested that after six months, most children are no more sensitive to chemical toxicity than adults and that in some cases, they are even less sensitive. This idea places him well outside the scientific mainstream and suggests how he might approach not just these pesticides but all chemicals affecting children.
In addition to overseeing pesticides if confirmed, Dourson would be responsible for the implementation of the new Toxic Substances Control Act, which entails setting safety levels for some of the most dangerous chemicals in use. As the 2016 law required, the EPA has already chosen the first 10 substances to be evaluated. Of those 10, Dourson has been paid to work on three — Trichloroethylene, 1-Bromopropane, and 1,4-Dioxane — and in each case, found them to be safer than independent scientists did.
Often the standards TERA recommended weren’t just off, they were wildly off. In the research commissioned by manufacturers of 1-Bromopropane, which the EPA is considering adding to its list of hazardous air pollutants, TERA put forward a safety level that was 67 times higher than one recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. For 1,4-Dioxane, a solvent that harms the liver, kidneys, and nervous system, TERA calculated a safety level that was 1,166 time less protective than that of the EPA.
For PFOA, a chemical used to make nonstick products that has been found in the drinking water of 6.5 million Americans, Dourson helped West Virginia set a state safety standard in 2002 that was 150 times higher than an internal level DuPont itself had set years earlier and 7,500 time higher than the lowest standard set by a state.
TERA consulted on another 17 worrisome chemicals — including lead, arsenic, and the carcinogens chromium and benzene — that the EPA has identified as needing further assessment as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act Work Plan.
In 2015, Dourson and TERA joined the University of Cincinnati and rebranded as the Risk Science Center. Since then, Dourson has co-authored at least one scientific paper with staff of the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, and Exxon.
Dourson and the EPA declined repeated requests to answer questions for this article.
After Dourson’s nomination was announced in July, the agency issued a press release that cited “widespread praise” for the toxicologist from his colleagues. “Dr. Dourson has a can do and winning temperament that inspires confidence,” said Gio Batta Gori, who, like Dourson, has consulted for tobacco companies.
Chemical safety advocates say the overlap between Dourson’s work and the chemicals under EPA scrutiny isn’t surprising. “These companies aren’t hiring Dourson if their product is hunky-dory,” said Jack Pratt, chemicals campaign director for the Environmental Defense Fund. “He comes in when they’ve got a fire. Over and over, he’s the guy that chemical companies hire when some regulator looks at their products and might potentially set a regulation.”
This coziness with industry has led environmental groups to wage a vocal campaign against Dourson, one of four nominees to high-level EPA positions being considered by the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee this week.
“It’s simply absurd that industry’s go-to science-for-hire guy would now be charged with reviewing the safety of many of the same chemicals he’s previously greenwashed,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which has dubbed Dourson Mr. Pay to Spray. “It’s like putting Philip Morris in charge of the American Lung Association.”
Patti Goldman, an attorney at Earthjustice, also strongly opposes his confirmation. But she has already begun focusing on how to limit the harm Dourson could cause if confirmed. “As someone who’s been a scientist for hire, Dourson should recuse himself from decisions affecting chemicals he’s worked on,” said Goldman. “It’s impossible for Dourson to be free of bias. What’s he going to do, cite his own studies?”