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September 10, 2007


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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 09/10/2007

ExxonMobil Staffer Peer Reviewed EPA HazMat Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency allowed an employee of one of the world's largest producers of hazardous wastes to peer review the science behind the agency's proposal to deregulate incineration of some industrial by-products. Thomas Parkerton, a senior scientist with ExxonMobil, told the EPA's contractor that his "current employer (and the chemical industry in general) would benefit from" the proposed rule, yet the contractor allowed him to review the science behind it anyway, according to documents obtained by attorneys for Earthjustice under the Freedom of Information Act. The proposed rule change would affect over 107,000 tons per year of hazardous wastes that are currently burned in specially designed hazardous waste incinerators. The rule would allow companies to use regular industrial boilers or send the wastes to municipal incinerators.

The EPA contracted out the peer review process to Syracuse Research Corporation, (SRC). Besides the direct employment with ExxonMobil noted in his conflict-of-interest form, Parkerton told SRC that he reviewed the same issue "with support from American Petroleum Institute funding 10 or so years ago." SRC's appointment appears to be a clear violation of EPA guidelines. The EPA's guidelines for peer review state that "EPA should always make every effort to use peer reviewers who do not have any conflict of interest" and "experts who have made public pronouncements . . . or those who have clearly taken sides may have an appearance of a lack of impartiality and should be avoided." The agency defended its contractor's decision to allow an ExxonMobil employee to review the proposal's science. The "guidelines are not 'shoulds' or 'musts,'" said Stiven Foster, the EPA's peer review coordinator for the office of solid waste and emergency response. Foster also stated that the science used to determine what chemicals could be burned, which is the topic under review by Parkerton, was not important enough to subject reviewers to strict conflict of interest standards. Chemicals in the waste could include chlorine, which forms the carcinogen dioxin when burned, and benzene.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, thought the proposal important enough to communicate its displeasure with aspects of the new rule during its drafting. It even referred to one section as a "deal-breaker," according to other documents obtained by Earthjustice. In response, the EPA promised to investigate other options. Comments on the EPA's proposed expansion of the rule - called the comparable fuels exclusion - are due September 14 and may be filed at rcra-docket@epa.gov.

$300 Million Buys Smoke-Friendly U. for Tobacco Giant

Despite assurances earlier this year by Virginia Commonwealth University Vice President of Research Frank Macrina that no formal research deals exist between Philip Morris Corp. and faculty members at the university, VCU scientists were awarded over $1 million in research contracts in 2006 by the cigarette manufacturer. Philip Morris is sponsoring a $300 million research center connected to the university. Macrina served on the Tobacco Institute's Science Advisory Board. Moreover, VCU president Gene Trani and Philip Morris recently negotiated "a smoking policy . . . in which accommodations for smokers will be provided in 41 of the 42 facilities which comprise the University."

Who Funded Black Cohosh Studies May Matter

Many women who donít wish to risk taking estrogen to combat menopausal symptoms like hot flashes instead take black cohosh, an extract of Actaea racemosa or black snakeroot. But does it work? According to this Wall Street Journal story, a 2005 manufacturer's study of 304 women, published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, showed the extract beating a placebo. But, according to the Journal article, a National Institutes of Health-funded study of 351 women published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no difference. The government-funded scientists suggested in the study that their results may have been affected by the fact that they hadn't "simulate(d) the whole-person approach used by naturopathic physicians." The placebo in both trials helped about a third of the women.

Political Appointee to Co-chair EPA Nanotech Panel

The Environmental Protection Agency has named George Gray, the politically appointed head of its Office of Research & Development, as co-chair of the Nanotechnology Environmental & Health Implications (NEHI) workgroup. The committee, which comes under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, is charged with developing a risk management strategy that could result in new regulations on nanotechnology to protect human health and the environment. Critics cited in Inside EPA (subscription required) fear that Gray, who once headed the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis where he conducted numerous studies for companies or industry trade groups that would benefit from expanded applications of nanotechnology, will use the position to forestall regulation of the nascent industry.

Meanwhile, Gray has just hired Pamela Williams of Chemrisk, an industry consulting firm, to be his senior science advisor at the EPA. Prior to her employment at Chemrisk, Williams also worked at Exponent Inc. and at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which receive extensive funding from industry.

Odds and Ends

The EPAís Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) has blasted two agency draft reports on lead, citing inadequate modeling procedures and analyses. The reports involved levels of lead dust arising from renovations and the potential for lead dust to cause changes in childrenís IQ. . . Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) have introduced legislation that would require drug companies to divulge their payments to physicians, paralleling state laws already passed in Minnesota and Vermont.

Cheers and Jeers

  • Jeer: to Barnaby J. Feder of the New York Times for prominently quoting Society of Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions president Bonnie H. Weiner, who claimed the benefits of drug-eluting stents for propping open coronary arteries outweigh the risks, without reporting that she receives educational and research grants from Boston Scientific, which makes drug-eluting stents.
  • Jeer: to Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post. In a front page report on a study that showed an upturn in youth suicides coincided with a downturn in antidepressant prescriptions, he failed to note that lead author Robert D. Gibbons of the University of Illinois had served as an expert witness for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which makes the antidepressant Effexor. The newspaper report noted that Pfizer, which makes the antidepressant Zoloft, provided study support for data collection but then quoted Gibbons saying that company did not review the results before publication.