Conflicts of Interest Could Undermine the Cleanup Efforts in East Palestine

Many residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are suspicious of the environmental contractor Norfolk Southern has brought in to measure chemical exposures following last month’s massive train derailment, toxic spill, and chemical burn off. Over the last decade, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) has become the go-to contractor for corporations looking to follow up on environmental disasters to which they’ve been connected. CTEH has done environmental testing after other derailments where toxic chemicals were released, like the 2012 derailment in Kentucky of a CSX train carrying butadiene (a human carcinogen), and other Norfolk Southern derailments in South Carolina and Georgia. CTEH also performed environmental monitoring for BP’s cleanup efforts after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore well blowout.
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The residents of East Palestine have reason to be suspicious. My experience working at government regulatory agencies in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations has led me to conclude that CTEH’s business model often entails providing clients with the ammunition to slow regulation or defeat court claims. I believe consulting firms like CTEH are tangled in irreparable conflicts of interest; if they produce results showing the clients’ products are harmful, it seems likely that their client base would quickly disappear.

When corporations are faced with indications that their products or activities may be causing environmental harm, it has become standard operating procedure to hire scientists not to determine the truth, but rather to manufacture doubt about the scientific evidence and then use that disinformation to try to slow public health protections and defeat lawsuits. That’s where consulting firms, CTEH among them, come in.

The two industries most closely identified with this strategy, of course, are tobacco and fossil fuels. In both cases, these industries have disingenuously demanded proof over precaution in matters of public good. For decades, cigarette manufacturers employed scientists to argue that the links between tobacco and lung cancer, or nicotine and addiction, were unproven. Similarly, fossil fuel producers bankrolled a small cohort of scientists to question the scientific consensus around the expected effects of the rise in the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gasses, while their own scientists were accurately predicting today’s climate crises. Debating the science is a tried-and-true way to avoid discussing the necessary policy solutions.

I saw this up-close in two stints running federal agencies. When I was running the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under President Barack Obama, the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s trade association, opposed our efforts to issue a rule protecting more than 2 million workers from exposure to silica, which increases a worker’s risk of silicosis and lung cancer. The ACC hired mercenary scientists to question virtually all the science underpinning the proposed standard; their chief consultant even stood up in a public hearing and asserted that we had not proven the link between silica and silicosis.

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That wasn’t the first time I saw those tactics. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, I served as the Department of Energy (DOE) Assistant Secretary for Environment, Health and Safety—among other things, that meant I was the chief safety officer for the nuclear weapons complex. There were scores of workers across the complex with chronic beryllium disease, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium, a metal vital to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. When the DOE was moving toward issuing a standard to protect workers employed in the weapons complex from beryllium exposure, Materion (then called Brush Wellman) the nation’s primary manufacturer of the metal, opposed the rule. The firm hired product defense scientists to question the existing studies and called for more research rather than efforts to reduce exposure. I was able to reject this attempt to delay these arguments and we issued the more protective standard in 1999. Materion eventually came around, and jointly with the United Steelworkers (which represented many beryllium-exposed workers not covered by DOE’s rule) requested that OSHA issue a beryllium standard similar to the one the industry had opposed earlier, to cover the remainder of the nation’s beryllium-exposed workers.

Nevertheless, these efforts to stymie public health protections infuriated me. After I left the Obama Administration in 2017 and returned to the George Washington University School of Public Health, I wrote The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception, in which I document case after case of corporations embracing the disinformation playbook. Volkswagen, for example, bankrolled efforts to dispute studies that documented the deleterious impact of diesel pollution on human health—at the same time that it secretly installed “defeat devices” to fool auto emissions testing systems into underestimating its cars’ diesel engine exhaust. Fossil fuel producers use product defense consultants in their efforts to counter studies showing that gas stoves increase household air pollution and the risk of childhood asthma, and to assert that the evidence of the health effects of air pollutants like ozone is too uncertain to use in setting regulatory limits. Even the National Football League, following initial reports of concussion-related brain injury among its players, took the tobacco road. It appointed an “expert” committee stacked with members conflicted by financial ties to the teams, and did its best to discredit the accumulating evidence, enabling the league to delay addressing the problem for a decade.

CTEH has been the source of controversy before. Following their rebuilding efforts after hurricane Katrina, thousands of gulf coast residents sued Knauf, a German-owned firm that manufactures construction materials, claiming that hydrogen sulfide, off gassing from its Chinese-manufactured construction drywall, corroded their pipes and damaged their homes, sickening many of them. Knauf hired CTEH to measure the chemicals emitted from the drywall, and CTEH declared them “not a public health concern.” In response to a barrage of consumer complaints, however, the Consumer Products Safety Commission hired the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to conduct an independent study. CPSC reported that the samples of Knauf’s drywall emitted hydrogen sulfide at a rate 100 times greater than comparison samples. In this case, CTEH’s efforts for the manufacturer did not prove successful; the manufacturer ended up settling the litigation, paying out hundreds of millions of dollars.

I understand the dilemma facing corporate CEOs or their trade associations. They will never say they value profits before the health and safety of their employees or the public, or that they care little about our air or water or food. But decision-makers atop today’s corporate structures are responsible for delivering short-term financial returns to investors, and in the pursuit of these goals a certain dissonance creeps in: profits and growth above all else. Minimizing the costs of cleaning up environmental disasters, opposing costly regulations, and defending against litigation are all part of the corporate calculus.

CTEH is the railroad industry’s consultant of choice in these efforts. When the American Association of Railroads, the industry’s trade association, wanted to weaken the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s policy on classifying chemicals as cancer causing, their comments were written by CTEH and sent under CTEH letterhead.

I am not claiming that CTEH engineers are intentionally fudging numbers or sampling in ways that guarantee finding lower risk from exposure. There’s a famous quote from Upton Sinclair that says, “It is difficult to convince a man of something if his salary depends on him not believing it.” Psychologists label this phenomenon “motivated reasoning.” There is no question that being paid by a polluter changes a scientist’s motivations, and thus the way they reason and work—including how they measure exposure and interpret the results.

We all need the best science to protect our health and environment. The residents of East Palestine need to be confident in the exposure monitoring being done in their community. But why should anyone trust the result of a study done by a product defense consulting firm?

There is a solution. Corporations whose products or activities may be harming people should be required to fund the testing and research, and then get out of the way.

To accomplish this, we will need to develop new mechanisms for surveillance and research funding and administration. There are some models out there, like the Health Effects Institute, a research group originally established in 1980 by the EPA and the automobile industry to study the health effects of motor vehicle emissions, with each party contributing half the budget.

The bottom line is that scientific investigation into the potential harms of products and activities should be paid for by producers of those products and activities. But the research should be planned, conducted, analyzed, and interpreted by independent scientists, not ones with financial conflicts of interest. Only then can we have confidence in the results.

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Contributor: David Michaels