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Gina Solomon’s Blog

Saving Environmental Health Leadership in California

Gina Solomon

Posted May 22, 2009 in Health and the Environment

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We have a whodunit on our hands here in California. Unfortunately it's a serious case, because the health effects will be far-reaching, and the ripples will hurt both people and science.

Under the cloak of the California budget crisis, a proposal has emerged from the Governor's office to completely eliminate California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). OEHHA is the small office inside Cal/EPA where all the health scientists work. It's a strange target if the goal is to save money. The total amount of taxpayer money funding OEHHA is only slightly north of $8 million, and the proposed elimination and moving of statutory functions would probably cost almost that much. This is 'budget dust', not a real belt-tightening measure. So we need to look elsewhere for the real motive.

In fact, there are a lot of suspects in this case.

  • The Styrene Industry has a motive because OEHHA is poised to list this ubiquitous Styrofoam and plastic chemical as a known human carcinogen (the link above goes to a pdf action alert from the manufacturers trying to stop this!)
  • PG&E has a motive because OEHHA has been trying to finalize a safe drinking water level for chromium (remember Erin Brockovich?) way ahead of the U.S. government; this cleaner drinking water proposal has been held up in the Governor's office - a coincidence??
  • Big tobacco has a motive because OEHHA was the first agency in the world to declare second-hand smoke to be a breast carcinogen, and we know from history that Big Tobacco holds grudges.
  • Dow Chemical has a motive because OEHHA is poised to make a decision that may list its chemical, bisphenol A (BPA) as "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm", a designation that no other agency has yet made. BPA is notorious because of its hormone-disrupting effects and presence in baby bottles and food cans, which may need to be labeled in California if this chemical is designated as causing reproductive harm.
  • Even other boards and departments in Cal/EPA might have a motive, since OEHHA reviews their risk assessments and calls them on it when the decisions are motivated by politics, not by science and health protection.

You get the idea. This is a feisty little office of scientists who are actually trying to do their job, which is to scientifically assess health and environmental risks in our air, water, food, soil, and consumer products, and to protect public health.

Funny how it is with these David vs. Goliath fights. Sometimes the little guy does win, but sometimes he gets stepped on. But if our David gets stepped on we all lose. That's because OEHHA's scientists have international reputations and guide state, federal, and global decisions on toxic chemicals in the environment. Where California goes, others follow, but if the leader disappears, we will have the blind leading the blind.

Fortunately the fight's not over. The California legislature has an opportunity to fix the problem by preserving OEHHA as an independent entity inside Cal/EPA, and strengthen it by consolidating other risk assessment functions there. Streamlining should happen at Cal/EPA, perhaps in pesticide registration where functions can be trimmed and merged to be more efficient. Also, this is the perfect place to use fees, since taxpayers shouldn't be paying for all of this work, polluters should.

The legislature will be accepting testimony on this on May 28th.  With the monster budget sandstorm swirling through Sacramento, and the prospect that California will not be able to pay its bills come July, the air probably won't clear in time to help us solve the mystery in this case.  But regardless of whodunit, we must do everything we can now to ensure that when a budget deal is struck, the little bunch of heroic, dedicated Davids in OEHHA are left standing to continue protecting all of us, and our environment from toxic chemicals

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Comments

Tom McKeeMay 23 2009 08:43 AM

Gina,
Great story! This is part of a disturbing trend. Under the guise of budget cuts New Jersey has just eliminated the Division of Science and Research inside the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In its hay day it had a reputation for cutting edge environmental and public health science. Just as it was about to publish cleanup standards for NJ numerous chromium contaminated site the Division was eliminated by NJ's Wall Street wizard Governor Corzine. The similarities to OEHHA situation are chilling. The chromium cabal has a history of going to great lengths to suppress information and avoid regulation.

Dale HattisMay 23 2009 04:15 PM

OEHHA is absolutely world class as a group of risk analysts in both the quality of their science and their commitment to protecting public health. They have pioneered in many areas, including understanding the implications of age at exposure for cancer risks. They also produced the first analysis I know of that explicitly considered differences in risks associated with different forms of a specific gene (glutathione transferase effects on risks of trichloroethylene.) Recently, a member of the group has been instrumental in fostering ground-breaking proposals by a National Research Council Committee to improve risk assessments for cancer and noncancer health effects. Eliminating this group would deprive Californians of the benefits of work at the cutting edge of toxicology and risk assessment.

Miriam GordonMay 24 2009 08:36 PM

Styrene is manufactured by Dow Chemical, and only Dow Chemical in the United States. So, BPA isn't their only gripe against OEHHA.

Bill WolfeMay 26 2009 01:42 PM

I don't think it is a coincidence that California and NJ scientists are under attack under the pretext of budget cuts.

Elimination of state government capacity to regulate makes it that much more efficient and easier for the chemical industry to lobby (I mean buy) Congress and pressure EPA.

I think the next phase of reality setting in will be when ENGO's realize that the Obama camp is hostile territory.


Jack SnyderMay 26 2009 04:28 PM

Dr. Solomon’s post, “Saving Environmental Health Leadership in California,” is inaccurate concerning the styrene industry in every regard – at least based on my knowledge as Executive Director of the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), which is a styrene industry-sponsored organization dedicated to promoting state-of-the-art research on styrene.

First, SIRC has a nearly 20-year history of sharing new scientific data on styrene with the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), including meeting constructively with OEHHA representatives on many occasions. In fact, in May 2008, SIRC and OEHHA co-organized a major scientific symposium on potential causes of cancer. Further, we at SIRC have had no communication with the Governor’s office regarding the proposed budget move involving OEHHA , and were, in fact, completely unaware of it.

Second, OEHHA is not preparing to list styrene as a “known human carcinogen.” The pending action referenced in Dr. Solomon’s article would prompt OEHHA to adopt carcinogen listings from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for Proposition 65. In styrene’s case, IARC considers styrene to be a “possible” cause of cancer, and has never listed it as a “known" human carcinogen; any suggestion to the contrary is a fundamental misunderstanding of the IARC listing scheme.

Lastly, Dr. Solomon’s article perpetuates misinformation about polystyrene products (which are not the same thing as the chemical styrene). Polystyrene and other styrene-based materials are “ubiquitous” simply because they are widely preferred for health care, food service, and other applications due to their safety, unique performance benefits and economical cost. For the record, “Styrofoam” is a registered trademark for building insulation, and not for any other products.

Jack Snyder, Executive Director
Styrene Information & Research Center
Arlington, VA
SIRC@styrene.org
(703) 741-5010

Dr. Michael RaslerMay 27 2009 07:39 PM

Greetings Ms. Solomon,
I think your article on Saving Environmental Health Leadership in California clearly makes the case on the issue of citizens wellness and corporate benefit. I appreciate your grasp on the damage that will be done if the california legislature doesn't continue to make decisions that are motivated by health science for the benefit of people. California is the leader in environmental issues, but that will surely change if the political stakeholders allow it.

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 29 2009 12:39 AM

I want to thank Mr. Snyder for his comment and am relieved to hear him say that SIRC was not involved in the effort to dissolve OEHHA. Of course, that still leaves us with lots of suspects, including many players in this same industry sector. I'm looking forward to seeing their alibis posted on this site in the very near future. Then we'll have to bring in Sherlock Holmes to crack the case.

As a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Toxicology Program (NTP), I'm well aware of the amount of heat generated by the controversy over styrene. The NTP is considering including styrene in its upcoming Report on Carcinogens, and SIRC has been quite involved (among others) in opposing this move. The SIRC comments considered by the Board are here: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/files/Snyder_SIRCJuly7.pdf.

OEHHA is poised to move forward to list styrene under California's Proposition 65 as "known to the State to cause cancer". It surprises me that SIRC claims not to know that. One might expect that they would have their ear to the ground on this issue.

But my concern really isn't with styrene, but rather with the fact that an independent scientific agency is being targeted for elimination under the guise of budget cuts. This agency has been under attack both overtly and covertly for many years by various industry sectors. Maybe it doesn't matter who struck the blow. It's just clear that it's time for the rest of us to stand up and defend scientific independence.

PS. I apologize for incorrectly using the term "Styrofoam". The correct term is indeed "polystyrene". Please make a note of it.

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