Industry special interests are burying information on cancer-causing chemicals and, according to watchdog groups, the government is helping them do it – in the name of “data quality.”
In a study of the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program, OMB Watch, a DC-based policy-research group, reports that industry is frustrating the work of government researchers with petitions that are light on science but heavy with accusations of anti-business “bias.”
Public interest advocates warn that corporations are co-opting the federal Data Quality Act to paralyze scientists with frivolous allegations of inaccuracy, driving a stealth assault on public-health research.
In 2000, Congress passed the Data Quality Act under the guidance of lobbyist Jim Tozzi, a former administrator with the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan who now heads the industry-backed Center for Regulatory Effectiveness (CRE). The two-paragraph statute broadly mandates that agencies uphold “the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information” they disseminate.
That’s a laudable principle, critics say, but the corporate-friendly Bush administration is promoting exploitation of the law.
“It’s provided a mechanism for industry associations to take another bite of the apple,” says OMB Watch analyst Clay Northouse, “to raise another challenge against a regulation coming into effect and affecting their business practices.”
In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Health and Human Services and other federal bodies fielded 80 “substantive” Data Quality Act requests for corrections, more than half of which came from industry, according to the Government Accountability Office. The resulting bureaucratic review process could take as long as two years.
OMB Watch focused on the National Toxicology Program’s biennial “Report on Carcinogens,” which describes 1,700 substances linked to genetic mutations or cancer. Rigorously reviewed by toxicology experts, the research is used by health professionals, community groups and environmental regulators. The upcoming edition has been delayed by more than a year while Health and Human Services mulls 10 data-quality complaints from industries.
In 2004, Tozzi’s CRE filed petitions seeking formal review of the toxicology program’s research and peer-review procedures – specifically those concerning a widely used pesticide called Atrazine. Joining CRE were the Kansas Corn Growers Association and other trade groups.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group, has pushed the EPA (with little success) to more tightly regulate Atrazine. The organization says the complaints are not about ensuring the quality of information but about blocking it from public view.
“The CRE’s petition was aimed at preventing Atrazine from getting listed in the ‘Report on Carcinogens’ by preventing the entire report from getting issued,” says Jen Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Tozzi, whose group openly receives funding from industry co-petitioners, acknowledges the stake in challenging government research. Because the data is used to create costly regulations, he contends, “of course the [DQA] is used by industry, because industry pays the bill.”
The American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing chemical manufacturers, tried to capitalize on the Data Quality Act in 2004 by protesting that a document used by the National Toxicology Program’s scientific reviewers “wrongly characterize[d] the cancer potential” of the industrial chemical naphthalene. This could lead to “product liability claims, diminished sales … and related commercial damage,” the association claimed.
After a year and a half of review, Health and Human Services denied the petition.
OMB Watch says that because there are other, more-reasonable safeguards for vetting information, like public comments, the government should place limits on data-quality petitions so that corporations have one less avenue to influence policies and science that protect the public.
Yet some watchdogs have wielded the Data Quality Act to beat industry at its own game. In 2004, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit group, successfully used the Act to challenge invalid scientific analyses that enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inflate population assessments of endangered Florida Panthers.
Public interest groups, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, have “far more opportunities to expose industry manipulation of the science in the regulatory agencies than the industry has to expose anti-industry bias.”
Nonetheless, Rena Steinzor, an environmental law expert with the Center for Progressive Reform, says that even if some challenges are legitimate, the Data Quality Act ultimately bleeds an already embattled regulatory system.
“I just think it’s counterproductive,” says Steinzor. “These health and safety agencies – which have suffered a lot already from attacks from the Bush administration – don’t need to be any more demoralized and harassed.”
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.