Toxicologist Deborah Rice was appointed chair of an EPA scientific panel reviewing the chemical a year ago. Federal records show she was removed from the panel in August after the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for chemical manufacturers, complained to a top-ranking EPA official that she was biased.
Rice, an award-winning former EPA scientist who now works at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has studied low doses of deca and reported neurological effects in lab animals. Last February, around the time the EPA panel was convened, Rice testified before the Maine Legislature in support of a state ban on the compound because scientific evidence shows it is toxic and accumulating in the environment and people.
Chemical industry lobbyists say Rice's comments to the Legislature, as well as similar comments to the media, show that she is a biased advocate who has compromised the integrity of the EPA's review of the flame retardant.
The EPA is in the process of deciding how much daily exposure to deca is safe -- a controversial decision, expected next month, that could determine whether it can still be used in consumer products. The role of the expert panel was to review and comment on the scientific evidence.
EPA officials removed Rice because of what they called "the perception of a potential conflict of interest." Under the agency's handbook for advisory committees, scientific peer reviewers should not "have a conflict of interest" or "appear to lack impartiality."
EPA officials were not available for comment Thursday.
Environmentalists accuse the EPA of a "dangerous double standard," because under the Bush administration, many pro-industry experts have served on the agency's scientific panels.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, reviewed seven EPA panels created last year and found 17 panelists who were employed or funded by the chemical industry or had made public statements that the chemicals they were reviewing were safe. In one example, an Exxon Mobil Corp. employee served on an EPA expert panel responsible for deciding whether ethylene oxide, a chemical manufactured by Exxon Mobil, is a carcinogen.
Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, called it "deeply problematic from the public interest perspective" for the EPA to dismiss scientists who advocate protecting health while appointing those who promote industry views.
Lunder said it is unprecedented for the EPA to remove an expert for expressing concerns about the potential dangers of a chemical.
"It's a scary world if we create a precedent that says scientists involved in decision-making are perceived to be too biased," she said.
Rice was unavailable for comment Thursday.
In addition to her testimony for the Maine Legislature, Rice has been quoted in media reports saying there is enough scientific evidence to warrant bans on deca. "We don't need to wait another five years or even another two years and let it increase in the environment, while we nail down every possible question we have," she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last March.
In a May letter to an assistant administrator at the EPA, Sharon Kneiss, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, called Rice "a fervent advocate of banning" deca and said she "has no place in an independent, objective peer review." She told the EPA that Rice's role on the panel "calls into question the overall integrity" of the EPA's evaluation of chemicals and that Rice may have influenced the other panelists in their review of deca.
Top EPA officials met with the industry group's representatives in June and promised to take action, according to a letter that EPA Asst. Administrator George Gray sent to the group last month. In that letter, Gray said the EPA found "no evidence" that Rice "significantly influenced the other panelists."
Environmentalists are concerned that Rice's removal could result in a less protective standard.
After EPA officials dismissed her from the five-member panel, they removed her comments from the panel's report on deca and removed all mention of her. Three months later, at the request of the chemical industry group, the EPA added a note to the panel report that Rice was removed "due to a perception of a potential conflict of interest" and that none of her comments were considered in their review of the chemical.