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#519 - Ethical Hazards of Risk Assessment, 06-Nov-1996

Not long ago, a state environmental official wrote us a thoughtful
letter about risk assessment:

"Recently I attended a public meeting as part of the process of
revising numeric criteria for 41 carcinogens and other toxicants that
bioaccumulate in fish consumed by humans.

"The [state environmental agency] and the EPA [U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency] would be satisfied if we could derive the
concentration in water of each contaminant that would result in a risk
level not greater than one-in-a-million to humans consuming fish, and
then sanctify that number in administrative rule.

"It occurred to me that we are missing the point. We are in essence
granting rights to chemicals, and chemical dischargers, and denying
them to people. The human population is not granted, for example, a
guarantee that there will not be more than an additional one in 10,000
cancers in the population due to exposure to all xenobiotics [toxic
chemicals made by humans]. But chemical dischargers are given a
guarantee for each chemical of a defined allowable risk level they can
impose on the human population.

"We seem to have it backwards. Instead of defining a societally
acceptable risk to humans from ingesting contaminants, and then
apportioning allowable risk to each contaminant and discharger, we
grant each chemical a risk level, and do not even make the effort of
calculating the cumulative risk of all chemicals to humans. If the
latter is impossible, it is an argument for zero discharge industries.

"Very few at the meeting were even aware that we were not talking one-
in-a-million risk level in any case, but 41-in-a-million, considering
all 41 contaminants in question.

"As well, industry argued for separating estuarine from marine
criteria, which would grant each chemical a two-in-a-million risk
level. Why not get really ridiculous and do it by fish species --one-
in-a-million risk level to humans from consuming each of the following:
cod, flounder, bass... [Furthermore,] the allowable contaminant level
we grant each chemical is not 'global.' As I understand it, the EPA
would allow an additional risk level for these chemicals from meat
consumption, for example.

"Other obvious flaws in our risk assessment are that: we in [our state]
and in many other states do not even regulate most of the 126 EPA
priority pollutants, let alone the 70,000 chemicals in use by industry;

"It is probable that in some cases we are using insensitive endpoints,
for example widespread immune system damage may occur at lower
contaminant concentrations than those which produce significant numbers
of cancers;

"We ignore synergism [increased toxicity caused by multiplier effects
when two or more chemicals interact];

"We aren't necessarily taking into account sensitive human sub-
populations (immune depressed, or fetuses).

"What bothers me is the mismatch between the two ends of the risk
spectrum. At one end we have the guaranteed risk level granted to
chemicals of between one-in-100,000 and one-in-10-million; at the other
end we seem to have real increases in human health deterioration,
breast and testicular cancer, ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder], and reduced sperm production, of tens of percents. How do we
get from one-in-a-million to tens of percents, and which end of the
spectrum should we offer a guaranteed risk level?...

"Another thought: industry, in criticizing our methodology for
developing new and possibly more stringent criteria, piled one
difficult-to-address concern after another on us. Of course if industry
were footing the bill for the studies necessary to address these
concerns, perhaps they wouldn't have been as vocal. Reverse onus..."

This state official --who obviously might lose his/her job if we
revealed his/her name (which, if you think about it, speaks sad volumes
about free speech in America) --was commenting on the ethical dilemma
of every risk assessor, which is this: assessing risks is a natural and
inevitable step for humans to take (we all do a risk assessment before
we dash across the street hoping to avoid getting hit by a car). But
risk assessment is now embedded in our environmental laws at the
federal and state levels in a way that guarantees that the "rights" of
industrial poisoners will be protected by the apparatus of the state
while citizens will be first disempowered and then physically harmed by
the risk assessors' work. Risk assessors are now in the position of the
conductors and engineers who kept the trains running on time to the
death camps in Nazi Germany to minimize discomfort to their passengers
--they are just doing a job, honorably and to the best of their
ability, but the final result of every professional risk assessor's
work is the destruction of the natural environment, one decision at a
time, and the relentless spread of sickness throughout the human and
wildlife populations.

The only way to restore an ethical basis to risk assessment is to embed
it in a very different framework for decision-making. Right now risk
assessment is used to answer the following sort of question: "How much
of these 41 carcinogens can we give industry the 'right' to dump into
public waters without killing an unacceptable number of citizens?"
Anyone who helps the state answer such an immoral question is
essentially keeping the death camp trains running on time. An ethical
decision-making process would ask a very different question: How can
society's resources be employed to minimize the use of chemicals known
or suspected of causing harm to humans and the environment? Within a
decision-making framework set up to answer THAT public policy question,
risk assessors could honorably use their skills, talents, and knowledge
to help society examine various alternatives. Until then, risk
assessment will continue to be a raw political tool of the industrial
powers-that-be, a means for 'managing' (manipulating) the anger, fear,
and frustration of a citizenry that knows it is being poisoned.

The raw political nature of formal risk assessment is being
demonstrated now in California, where Governor Pete Wilson's
administration has ordered state risk assessors to destroy research
data and internal records that fail to reflect the state's final policy
decisions on pesticides, toxic wastes, and industrial-plant emissions.
A memo issued by the California Environmental Protection Agency's
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment asks employees to cull
files to ensure that they contain only materials that reflect
management findings.

"Please dispose of all documents... [electronic-mail] messages and
other communications prepared during the course of policy formulation
which contain other policy proposals not adopted or reflected in the
final decision," Charles Shulock, the office's chief deputy director,
wrote on April 19, 1996. The memo was obtained by the WALL STREET
JOURNAL.[1]

Mr. Shulock's memo argues that the new "records retention policy" will
protect sensitive "pre-decisional" deliberations and will thus promote
"robust internal discussions." But the state's scientific staff sees it
differently: "It's ridiculous and isn't sincere. If they are concerned
about free flow [of information], they would not conceive of shredding
very important scientific evaluations," says Kristen Haynie, a
spokesperson for the California Association of Professional Scientists,
a labor union.

One of California's nationally-known pesticide risk assessors, Robert
Howd,[2] said, "The state has hired us and pays us as experts to
exercise scientific judgment. Controlling the right of scientists to
decide what will be useful later would attack our professionalism, our
honor and the scientific process itself."

What Mr. Howd seems not to recognize is that the formal risk assessment
process, as it is typically practiced for decision-making in the U.S.
today, is not about honor or professionalism or science. Baldly put, it
is about making political decisions, the aim of which MUST BE to
accommodate the industrial polluters who provide the mountains of cash
necessary for politicians to gain re-election and retain their power.
If one-in-a-million, or 41-in-a-million, or several percent of,
citizens are hurt in the process, so be it. (Until we get full public
financing of elections --to get the corrupting power of private money
out of our elections --this political dynamic will continue to dominate
decision-making, and risk assessment will only be able to be conducted
within this framework.)

Case in point: Robert Holtzer, a medical doctor and biochemist, says he
was told to ignore evidence that pesticides are causing cancer and
asthma among residents of Lompoc, California. Dr. Holtzer says
preliminary research by his agency suggested a higher-than-normal
incidence of lung and bronchial cancers, and an increase in respiratory
illnesses, among residents of Lompoc Valley. He says further study is
needed. "Despite the fact that this looks like something, I was told to
ignore it --don't study it, don't talk about it," says Holtzer, who
retired recently from the California EPA's Office of Environmental
Health Hazard Assessment.[3]

Dr. Holtzer says, and his former supervisor confirms, that his office
was formally ordered to stop studying diseases in Lompoc. For years,
residents of Lompoc have been complaining that pesticides sprayed on
nearby fields of lettuce, broccoli and flowers have been making them
sick with flu-like symptoms.

In June Dr. Holtzer's former supervisor, David Siegel, wrote a draft
report on the Lompoc situation in which he concluded that the data "did
not provide findings of increased illness in the Lompoc area." Dr.
Holtzer and two of his colleagues who collected the data in Lompoc --
epidemiologist Richard Ames and toxicologist Joy Ann Wisniewski --
refused to sign their names to Mr. Siegel's draft report. "We asked
that our names not be associated with the report," Dr. Holtzer said.
Drs. Ames and Wisniewski wouldn't comment for the record, thus silently
speaking volumes about the limits of free speech in late 20th century
America.

The manipulation of risk assessments in California for political
purposes is not unique or even unusual. Risk assessment, when it is
embedded within a decision-making process specifically aimed at
determining how much damage is 'acceptable' and specifically NOT aimed
at finding least-harmful solutions, is by its very nature a clandestine
political manipulation of the citizenry. What's unusual in California
is that the unethical political manipulation is so obvious and so well
documented that even the WALL STREET JOURNAL finds it noteworthy.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Mark Lifsher, "Technology & Health--California EPA Stirs Anger by
Ordering Disposal of Data Disputing Its Findings," WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 1, 1996, pg. B5.

[2] See, for example, Anna Fan, Robert Howd, and Brian Davis, "Risk
Assessment of Environmental Chemicals," ANNUAL REVIEW OF PHARMACOLOGY
Vol. 35 (1995), pgs. 341-368.

[3] Mark Lifsher, "California Journal: Cal-EPA Scientists Complain
Pesticide Data Were Buried," WALL STREET JOURNAL [California
Supplement] October 2, 1996, pg. CA1.

Descriptor terms: risk assessment; fish; wildlife; ethics; regulation;
alternatives assessment; pete wilson; robert holtzer; cal epa; office
of environmental health hazard assessment; lompoc; ca; cancer; asthma;
pesticides; david siegel; whistle blowers; wall street journal; water
pollution;