Last week, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Michael Dourson, professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, and a known conservative, to lead the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In such a key position within the agency, Dourson would have full control over pesticides, other hazardous substances and chemicals, and pollution prevention. He also has the last word on which chemicals are considered “safe.”
On paper, Dourson’s experience seems fairly legitimate. In addition to working at UC, he also founded the nonprofit consultancy Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), whose mission is to “support the protection of public health by developing, reviewing and communicating risk assessment values and analyses.” He has held multiple positions in the field, serving the American Board of Toxicology, Society of Toxicology, Society for Risk Analysis, and Toxicology Education Foundation. Yet more conveniently, he is also an ex-employee of the EPA, having worked for the agency as a scientist for 15 years before starting TERA in 1995.
“The EPA is calling for the swift confirmation of Mr. Dourson, so the EPA can carry out the Administrator’s agenda to serve the American people,” said EPA spokesperson Amy Graham in a press release. “Dourson has a proven resume to lead the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office.”
However, digging a little deeper into this resume, critics have raised a few questions regarding his suitability for the post.
Dourson’s Cozy Relationships with Industry Sparks Unease among NGOs
So far, Dourson’s work history hasn’t garnered as much amusement as his interest in writing so-called “science-bible stories,” which have expressed strong beliefs on science and religion, according to news now in circulation. However, what Dourson does in his spare time may be the least of our worries if he is to be confirmed.
Investigations have also found links between Dourson’s company and major chemical manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and tobacco corporations. Though a nonprofit organization, TERA actually drew in 43 percent of its funding from industry-related work in 2014 (the most recent year publicly available). This has left environmentalists concerned about his ties to an industry he would be regulating in his new position at the EPA.
“We are deeply concerned over the nomination of Michael Dourson to head the toxics office at EPA,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), in a blog post detailing Dourson’s questionable track record. “Dr. Dourson has extensive, longstanding ties to the chemical industry (as well as earlier ties to the tobacco industry). He also has a history of undertaking work, often with significant funding from industry, to undermine public health protections and the science underlying them.”
Continuing TSCA Work: The Best Man for the Job?
It’s not only industry relations and religious views, but also Dourson’s scientific views that have raised concern among public health advocates.
“I don’t have any problem with people bringing moral values, even religious values into risk assessment,” said Adam Finkel, a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and former colleague of Dourson’s. But, Finkel went on, Dourson made no secret of his opinion that the EPA overestimates risk, which is worrisome for those most vulnerable to exposure.
This makes consequences for the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) especially terrifying to consider. The TSCA is now at a critical stage of development, undergoing a rewrite that could have catastrophic effects on the investigation of asbestos and other toxic substances and chemicals. But according to the EDF, Dourson’s nomination “threatens to move us further away from health-protective implementation of the new TSCA.”
While the public faces daily risk to toxic substance and chemical exposure, farmworkers, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups face unique dangers. Farmworkers, for example, risk exposure to pesticide chemicals on the job, while other manual laborers have developed deadly diseases from exposure to substances such as asbestos. Children, too, are a concern, says Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s environmental health.
“Unsurprisingly, it appears President Trump has no interest in selecting individuals who would bring scientific expertise and a commitment to children’s environmental health to these key positions at the EPA,” she said.
An Uncertain, but Undeniably Controversial, Appointment
Dourson’s nomination won plenty of praise in an EPA press release and was endorsed by several toxicologists, religious leaders, and special interest groups. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a major lobbying organization, described Dourson has a “highly respected, award-winning scientist who brings to the agency decades of experiences.”
“His knowledge, experience, and leadership will strengthen EPA’s processes for evaluating and incorporating high-quality science into regulatory decision making,” the ACC added.
In truth, however, these decades of experiences are similar to those of Trump’s previous cabinet nominations: heavily laced with conflicts of interest. If confirmed, he will join EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who openly disagrees with banning asbestos, and Nancy Beck, a known chemical industry lobbyist. Just like these picks, Dourson doesn’t have a constructive excuse for these particular interests.
“Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them,” Dourson said in defense of his decision to work with the tobacco industry. “We’re an independent group that does the best science for all these things. Why should we exclude anyone that needs help?”
Reading this quote from Dourson, it’s hard not to shudder. An analogy between Jesus and his toxicology company TERA is nonsensical and incomprehensible. Worse than that, however, is using such an analogy as an excuse to justify his company’s aiding a tobacco industry worth $35 Billion – and industry that kills more than 7 million people every year.
Is this who the public really wants in control of toxic substances and chemicals in the U.S.? Or is this what the chemical industry wants? Only time will tell.