EPA Uses United Nations to Overcome U.S. Scientists

Published September 1, 1998

Rejected by its own scientific advisors on the question of dioxin’s threat to human health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gone international, seeking support from the United Nations and World Health Organization.

The Science Advisory Board, established by Congress to review EPA science, has soundly rejected the agency’s conclusion that dioxin causes cancer and presents other health risks to humans. Three years ago, when it reviewed EPA’s original risk assessment for dioxin, the Board concluded that the only human health effect linked to the chemical is a skin disease.

Most Board members agreed that EPA had “a tendency to overstate the possibility for danger.” The Board directed the agency to make “substantial revisions” and, making clear its lack of trust in EPA’s ability to get the science right the second time around, directed the agency to submit its revisions for another Board review.

William Farland, who heads up EPA’s eight-year-long, multi-million-dollar dioxin risk assessment program, said in 1995 that the agency 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.

In the meantime, Farland and other government officials have participated in the meetings of two United Nations agency committees, both of which are said to have reached a “consensus” that favor’s EPA’s exaggerated risk assessment. Farland has announced that the findings of those committees–dominated by bureaucrats and meeting behind closed doors–will be key ingredients in the new EPA assessment.

Unlike the representatives who serve on United Nations agency committees, Science Advisory Board members come from academic, commercial, industrial, and public interest organizations. Their rejection of EPA’s dioxin risk assessment was done publicly, in full view of the press. Board meetings are open to the public; anyone can submit written comments to the Board, and time is afforded at all meetings for oral testimony. By contrast, U.N. agencies load their committees with government officials, lock out most industrial representatives (even as observers), and meet behind closed doors.

In February 1997, the U.N.’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) hosted a meeting to consider 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. Nevertheless, the IARC committee, meeting behind closed doors, voted 14 to 10 to declare dioxin a human carcinogen. All 5 members from American agencies voted yes.

IARC’s pronouncement was quickly incorporated into the work of U.S. agencies. The first sentence in a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) draft report says IARC has declared dioxin “a definite human carcinogen.” The Scientific Advisory Board, by contrast, had determined that EPA 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. The committee concluded that current exposures to dioxin might be causing “subtle” effects. “Subtle” sounds so much better than unproved or undetectable or unimportant.

What’s at stake? The EPA says it’s the nation’s health. The Science Advisory Board disagreed. But one fact is not in dispute: EPA actions to reduce dioxin exposure have cost U.S. taxpayers and businesses some $100 billion–more than the amount of money spent on the National Institutes of Health in the last ten years.

EPA pays attention to United Nations agencies because they can be used as “end-runs” around the Science Advisory Board that Congress established to review EPA’s science openly and objectively. To stop such maneuvering, Congress will need to eliminate travel funds for U.S. agency officials to attend U.N. 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 Science Advisory Board committee that will review EPA’s new dioxin risk assessment 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.