Professor Raises Concerns about Pick for EPA Toxics Office

Milken Institute School of Public Health Professor David Michaels was a featured speaker at a press conference held in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 3 to express concerns over the appointment of Michael Dourson to lead a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office dealing with toxic chemicals.  The meeting was held by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D.-N.M.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on an area of the Capitol grounds known as “the swamp.”

Dourson was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.  He is trained as a toxicologist and serves as a professor at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine’s Department of Environmental Health, where he is affiliated with the school’s Risk Science Center.  Michaels and others at the event raised concerns about Dourson’s work for the chemical industry, including research generating evidence for justifying weaker standards for several chemicals that the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is currently considering regulating.   His 150 published papers also include what critics allege is research intended to mask the dangers of exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke, trichloroethylene, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the pesticide chlorpyrifos, and chemicals in children’s toys. 

“In Dr. Michael Dourson, President Trump has nominated one of the country’s leading practitioners of mercenary science to direct the federal government’s efforts to protect our families from diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals,” said Michaels, who led the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for seven years and has spent decades researching and documenting the strategies used by industries including tobacco, chemicals, and pesticides to manufacture scientific confusion and doubt. 

The tobacco industry invented this strategy, Michaels, says, but it “is now widely applied by polluters and manufacturers of dangerous chemicals and pesticides. But they can’t do it alone – they need the help of scientists like Michael Dourson.”  When a company or industry has a product, such as a chemical that is under scrutiny because of evidence that it can make people sick, they can pay for a risk assessment that minimizes the risk.  The work is presented as legitimate science – even published in what looks like a legitimate peer-review journal. 

“If done effectively, the results seed doubt in the minds of decision-makers and the public. It appears there is debate among scientists.  No action is taken and government efforts to prevent disease are delayed or undermined,” Michaels says.  The end result, he explains:  “Instead of the public being protected, it is the dangerous product and its unethical manufacturer that get protected.”

The Senate needs to confirm the nomination.  “If confirmed by the Senate, Michael Dourson would be making decisions that directly impact every one of us, every day. 

His record of putting monied interests before the public’s health and safety makes him not merely deeply unqualified for this position but also profoundly untrustworthy,” Michaels says. 

Five people from families impacted by cancer or industrial pollution linked to TCE, PFOA, and other industrial chemicals, including a 12-year-old girl, also spoke at the event.  Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of the Happy Family organic baby food company told attendees about her experiences running a company that made efforts to ensure that their wares do not include toxic chemicals such as pesticides.  “I’m here to show that business can be done right,” she said.