By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
Nancy Beck’s strategy for getting confirmed to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been to duck and cover. During her recent hearing, she did everything she could to pretend that she does not have a lengthy record of opposing and weakening protections from toxic chemicals.
Beck’s written testimony and hearing were her opportunity to explain why she is the right person to run a federal agency whose mission is to protect the public, including children, from dangerous consumer products. And she utterly failed to do so.
To be fair, she does have a lot to hide.
What Beck revealed is that she has no record of actually protecting people. In fact, she has a record of doing the opposite.
Among Beck’s “accomplishments,” just in the past three years as the Trump administration’s Toxics Czar, she has:
- Repeatedly sought to weaken proposed protections from highly persistent PFAS chemicals — linked to cancer, immune suppression, and developmental and reproductive harm – that are in drinking water supplies across the nation as well as consumer products.
- Rewritten EPA rules to ignore most worker exposure to cancer-causing asbestos when evaluating whether asbestos poses an “unreasonable risk” to health. Her approach threatens many workers including teachers and fire fighters. Her rule was thrown out by a federal appeals court.
- Eliminated proposed rules protecting workers (and consumers) from the dangerous solvent TCE which is linked to cancer, fetal heart defects, liver and kidney toxicity and harm to the immune system.
- Refused to finalize a rule to protect workers (and consumers) from deadly methylene chloride which poses an acute risk of asphyxiation, as well as chronic risks including cancer, and liver toxicity. Four people have already been killed by methylene chloride during this Administration as a result.
- Halted proposed protections for workers (and consumers) from the toxic solvent NMP which has been linked to fetal death for pregnant women and reduced male fertility in the workplace.
- Withheld needed protection for children, farm workers and rural communities by blocking the proposed ban on brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos.
- Blocked needed protection for children by rejecting a ban on use of a brain-damaging pesticide (TCVP) in pet products including flea collars and shampoos.
That’s just one reason her nomination has drawn strong opposition from the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, the Learning Disabilities Association of America and many of its state chapters, over 90 scientists, including past chairs and members of National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panels; and individuals whose lives have been adversely affected by exposure to toxic chemicals and other dangerous consumer products including Emily Donovan, Jerry Ensminger, Brian Wynne, Janet McGee and Crystal Ellis.
Beck’s written testimony was barely two pages long. She devoted two content-free sentences to her work at EPA, making no mention of any of the items above (or a host of others). She makes no mention of being detailed to the White House for the past year—where she has:
- Demanded changes to EPA’s risk evaluation of TCE to exclude consideration of its potential to damage hearts in utero;
- Repeatedly working to weaken a PFAS-protection rule mandated by Congress to protect consumers;
- Been involved in interfering with the CDC’s ability to release timely guidance for safely reopening the country during the COVID pandemic.
Even more incredible, Beck entirely omits any mention of her previous five yearsworking as a senior official at the largest lobbying group for chemical manufacturers including Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Exxon and “Chemours,” at a time when the American Chemistry Council:
- Fiercely opposed the CPSC’s efforts to ban toxic plasticizer chemicals(phthalates)—associated with male birth defects including infertility, decreased sperm count, and malformation of the penis—from toys and other children’s products (Exxon and the ACC are still suing in federal court to overturn the ban);
- Tried to stop the CPSC from granting a petition by groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Learning Disabilities Association, and the National Hispanic Medical Association to ban the use of a class of cancer-causing and neurotoxic flame retardants from children’s products, residential furniture and other consumer products.
- Promoted failed legislation—subsequently implemented by the Trump administration—to purge independent scientists from EPA’s Science Advisory Boards, a policy that was recently rejected by two federal courts.
Finally, her written testimony devoted only a single sentence to her near-decade stint at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). That is where she first became known for blocking, badgering and haggling with EPA and other health-focused agencies over scientific studies that indicate various chemicals pose a risk to public health (a role she has reprised since last June while “on detail” to the White House from EPA). It was during her tenure at OMB that she wrote a policy plan for federal agencies to assess risk that the National Academy of Sciences unanimously rejected as “fundamentally flawed,” simplistic” and “of serious concern.”
Rather than forthrightly address any of the myriad problems and issues raised by her extensive and disturbing work history, Beck instead devoted most of her skeletal testimony to a risk evaluation that she says she conducted for the Washington State Department of Health, 20-years ago. Beck alleges that it was her work that led to the shutdown of a paint shop in a low-income community, but she provided no details regarding the risk evaluation itself or the circumstances surrounding the shutdown of the paint company. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington entered into the record a letter by the very same Washington State Department of Health opposing Beck’s nomination.
Perhaps Beck thought that if her testimony skipped over her uninterrupted history of opposing regulation of toxic chemicals and undermining consumer protections, the Senators wouldn’t know enough to ask her about it. That’s not how it turned out. Five Senators questioned her extensively:
- Commerce Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell from Washington, a state hard-hit by PFAS contamination that has been a leader enacting laws to regulate PFAS—some of which could be preempted by the CPSC if Nancy Beck becomes the Chair; she questioned Beck about her efforts to undermine health protections for both TCE and PFAS while working “on detail” at the White House. [starting at 1:07:25]
- Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico – leader of the Senate efforts to reauthorize the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); he challenged Beck on her refusal to ban methylene chloride in paint strippers. [starting at 1:20:25]
- Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the CPSC; he pressed Beck on her commitment to protecting consumers, and her role in suppressing CDC Guidance on COVID-19. [starting at 1:32:47]
- Senator Jon Tester from Montana, a state with a tragic legacy of asbestos contamination centered in the town of Libby; he lectured Beck on the importance of banning asbestos. [starting at 1:55:10]
- Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a state at the epicenter of the PFAS crisis, as documented in investigative journalist Sharon Lerner’s series, “The Teflon Toxin,” and dramatized in the recent film Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo; she grilled Beck on her role within the administration on various elements of its do-nothing policy on PFAS . [starting at 2:13:38]
Committee Chair Roger Wicker from Mississippi and the Consumer Product Subcommittee Chair Jerry Moran of Kansas also gave Beck brief attention.
In her oral testimony, Beck avoided taking responsibility for any of her actions and evaded most of the questions posed. Several times she did this by claiming an unspecific privilege because the matters being raised took place during an inter-agency review process (and therefore allegedly secret), but even when reframed to ask about her personal views on the subjects, she refused to answer. When Senator Cantwell asked whether Beck supported weakening a pending rule requiring product manufacturers to disclose potential new uses of PFAS to EPA, Beck said she was “not prepared to answer that question.” In other instances, Beck offered apparent responses that were actually dodges. When Capito asked Beck if she had taken a position or been involved on a particular matter, Beck replied, “I wasn’t the decisionmaker”—a non-answer. Beck also made a number of factual misstatements about specific chemicals, particular EPA activities, and the scope of her authority while running the Office of Chemical Safety. Read more on Beck’s evasions and misstatements here.
Anyone watching who had knowledge of Beck’s record was likely appalled at her distorted and untruthful answers on PFAS, methylene chloride, and TCE. But another moment probably stood out for those not as deep in the weeds of chemical policy.
That was when Senator Blumenthal asked Beck about an important matter relating to consumer products: furniture tip-overs. According to the CPSC, a child dies every 11 days in the U.S. when a TV or piece of furniture falls on them, and Blumenthal introduced into the record statements from two mothers, Janet McGee and Crystal Ellis, whose children were killed by furniture tipovers. Blumenthal practically handed Beck the answer when he asked:
“All four current CPSC Commissioners have said that the furniture stability standard is inadequate. (referring to the two Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees)
“Do you agree? Yes or no.”
Beck sought to avoid answering the question, on the grounds that she is not yet at the Commission and therefore doesn’t “have access to all the data that the other commissioners have.”
Blumenthal told her plainly:
“You know, I’m giving you a chance, in effect, to show us that you are on the side of consumers. I think your record to date is disqualifying for this position. I’m really giving you a chance to show that you would take vigorous and aggressive action to protect consumers like Ms. McGee and Ms. Ellis and their families and children, and that answer is simply inadequate. I’m not a member of the Commission either.” (emphasis added)
Beck was incapable of even faking sincere concern about toddlers being killed by dangerously unstable furniture.
All she could muster was a tepid “my heart goes out to their families”—the same stock phrase she had used minutes earlier when confronted by Senator Udall with the deaths caused by methylene chloride in paint strippers while she was blocking a proposed ban on its use.
Beck’s pathetic response to Blumenthal was perhaps the defining moment of the hearing. Less than 24 hours later, Republican Senators Capito and Susan Collins of Maine announced they opposed Beck’s nomination, confirming what a terrible impression Beck made with Senators on and off the Committee.
Who leads the Consumer Product Safety Commission has nationwide implications—it sets the course for the next 7 years for product safety in this country. Nancy Beck has demonstrated beyond any doubt she is unfit to hold this important role. Like Senators Collins and Capito, other lawmakers will likely reach that conclusion.
Senators will be under increasing pressure to make their views known on Beck’s nomination. They should act swiftly to make clear their opposition and eliminate the risk that her nomination poses to the health and safety of all consumers.