Commentary

EPA Uses U.N. Agencies to Overcome

By Michael Gough
August 20, 1998

Why is the Environmental Protection Agency paying more attention to the United Nations than to its own scientific advisers? Three years ago, EPA’s advisers — the Science Advisory Board that Congress established to review the agency’s science — rejected EPA’s risk assessment that said dioxin causes cancer and that tiny amounts of dioxin in the environment may cause almost every malady known to man.

Almost all Science Advisory Board members agreed that the EPA had “a tendency to overstate the possibility for danger,” and the board directed the EPA to make “substantial revisions.” Brushing aside EPA’s contentions about dioxin and cancer and other diseases, the board said that the only human health effect linked to dioxin is a skin disease. Moreover, the board displayed no trust in the EPA’s ability to get the science right. It directed the EPA to submit its revisions for another board review.

William Farland, who is in charge of the EPA’s eight-year-long, multi-million-dollar dioxin risk assessment, said that the EPA would respond to the board’s criticisms within six months. No response has yet been delivered, but in early July, Farland said a draft would be ready for board review this fall. Maybe. Farland has revised the delivery date so many times that no one is holding his breath.


In February 1997, the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) hosted a meeting about the carcinogenicity of dioxin…Epidemiologists, scientists who study diseases in humans, told IARC that there was only “limited” evidence that dioxin caused cancer in humans. No matter. Meeting behind closed doors, the IARC committee voted 14 to 10 to declare dioxin a human carcinogen…


But Farland and other government officials who have pushed hardest to declare dioxin the scourge of the earth have not been idle. They have participated in two UN agency committees that reached a “consensus” that favors EPA’s exaggerated risk assessment, and Farland has announced that those decisions will be key ingredients in the new EPA assessment.

The Science Advisory Board differs from UN agency committees. Board members come from academic, commercial, industrial and “public interest” organizations. The board’s rejection of EPA’s assessment was done publicly, in full view of the press. Anyone can attend board meetings and submit written comments, and interested people are afforded time to make oral presentations. U.N. agencies load committees with government officials, lock out most industrial representatives (even as observers) and meet behind closed doors.

In February 1997, the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) hosted a meeting about the carcinogenicity of dioxin. (IARC is headquartered in Lyon, home to some of the finest restaurants in France and near-excellent skiing.)

Epidemiologists, scientists who study diseases in humans, told IARC that there was only “limited” evidence that dioxin caused cancer in humans. No matter. Meeting behind closed doors, the IARC committee voted 14 to 10 to declare dioxin a human carcinogen; all 5 members from American agencies voted yes.

One federal agency has already glommed onto IARC’s pronouncement. The first sentence in a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) draft report says IARC has declared dioxin “a definite human carcinogen.” (NIOSH goes further than IARC; IARC never said “definite.”) Few scientists will conclude that NIOSH’s study shows that dioxin causes human cancer, but so what? IARC has already said it’s so.

The board said that the EPA had failed to support its contention “that adverse effects in humans may be occurring near current exposure levels.” In May, the World Health Organization assembled a committee in Geneva to consider non-cancer health effects from dioxin. (Geneva, the most expensive city in Europe, is lovely in May.) The committee concluded that current exposures to dioxin might be causing “subtle” effects. “Subtle” sounds so much better than unproved or undetectable or unimportant.

The fact that two committees, dominated by bureaucrats, meeting behind closed doors, contradict the Science Advisory Board could mean that the committees got it right and the board got it wrong. But no one knows. Closed-door meetings provide no public accountability.

What’s at stake? The EPA says it’s the nation’s health. The board said that was nonsense. One thing’s not in dispute. EPA’s regulations and other actions to reduce dioxin exposures have cost us about $100 billion — more than the amount of money spent on the National Institutes of Health in the last decade.

Why does EPA pay attention to UN agencies? Because it uses them for end-runs around the Science Advisory Board that Congress established to review EPA’s science openly and objectively. Congress can stop these end-runs. It can eliminate travel funds for U.S. agency officials to attend UN meetings that consider issues related to U.S. regulations. Or it can end U.S. support for those UN activities altogether. In the immediate future, it can insist that the board committee that will review EPA’s new draft, whenever it becomes available, be appropriately balanced.

Michael Gough, director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute, was a member of the 1994 Science Advisory Board review committee.