By Charise Johnson, Union of Concerned Scientists
Dr. Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with a history of providing consultation to the chemical industry, could become the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dourson has consistently defended the use of several chemicals found to pose major adverse health effects, manipulating his research in favor of industry interests. This could spell trouble for public health and safety, particularly in low-income communities and communities where residents are predominately people of color—which often includes military bases.
Over this past summer, ProPublica released a series of articles on the excessive toxic pollution problems at military bases. This immediately caught my attention: I work on chemical safety issues at UCS and spent my formative years living on army bases around the country. Although I had passing knowledge of the dangerous chemical agents at storage sites on a base in Aberdeen, Maryland (including nerve and blistering agents like mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and lewisite), I never once considered the impact exposure to toxics might pose to military personnel and their families, let alone the potential for exposure from burning of munitions, toxic releases, and proximity to Superfund sites. I naively assumed we were safe from harm, and didn’t give a second thought to the acrid odors wafting in the air. Who would knowingly put the people who fight for our country at risk in their own homes?
Can we trust Dourson to keep military families safe?
Judging from his track record of downplaying the health risks posed by several EPA-regulated compounds, including 1,4-dioxane, 1-bromoproane, trichloroethylene (TCE), and chlorpyrifos (which are currently under review), I don’t believe Dourson has the best interests of military families in mind. I worry that exposure to toxics on military bases may only worsen under his industry-partial leadership. I am not alone in my sentiments: retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and current U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) has been critical of Dourson, calling his work on toxic chemicals “reckless”. She is acutely aware of the contamination and associated health effects at military bases like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where drinking water is highly contaminated by Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Interestingly, Dourson researched PFOA—a chemical linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer—and came to the convenient conclusion that a weaker safety standard than what EPA recommends would be just fine.
That is why this potential appointment is personal. If past administrations have done a substandard job of handling chemical concerns, putting an industry shill in charge of limiting and preventing exposure to toxic chemicals may result in even less protection for the public.
Conflict of interest is an understatement
It’s obvious Pruitt and his team intend to dismantle regulatory protections in favor of industry based on their actions to date, as well as the nominations and appointments of chemical industry advocates, including Dr. Nancy Beck (former representative of the American Chemistry Council) and Michael Dourson.
Dourson’s past work includes giving the green light on several chemicals that have been shown to have serious adverse health effects. He has even weighed in on TCE, a toxic chemical that is prominent on military bases, to ask to weaken the safety standards. See a list of locations where chemicals he has “blessed” have been found at alarming levels here. Of the states, towns, counties, and cities listed, I have lived in four at various stages of my life. Nearly two decades later, and I’m just now uncovering this. I’ll let that sink in.
We must defend the defenders
Veterans Day is approaching, which means food, retail, and recreation discounts for military veterans and active-duty personnel. This is a nice (if not cursory) gesture to show our gratitude, but it’s still superficial at best considering the challenges our veterans and military families face. Our country’s leaders profess to have the utmost respect for our military, even tearing the nation into a frenzy over a peaceful protest by claiming that kneeling for the national anthem disrespects those who have fought for our freedom. Is this the brownfield we want to die on? Our military need more than lip service and deserve better than Dourson.