By Richard Denison
Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.
[Use this link to see all of our posts on Dourson.]
That lyric from a Chuck Berry signature song, “Memphis, Tennessee,” takes on a haunting new meaning in light of the latest evidence of contamination of the Memphis Sand aquifer, a main drinking water source for the city, with the highly toxic solvent tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene (PCE), or more commonly PERC). Lest there be any doubt about the human toll this is taking, read this local woman’s heart-wrenching story.
The source of PERC in this case is a former dry cleaning business that is now a hazardous waste site, and because of Sharri Schmidt’s case is now nominated to become a Superfund site. The chemical is still widely used in dry cleaning as well as in many other uses. It’s a probable human carcinogen, and is also toxic to the brain, kidney and liver.
As I write, Dourson and Beck are making decisions that will help determine how the risks of PERC and other chemicals are assessed and whether or not they need to be regulated.
Unfortunately, Schmidt is far from alone. PERC contamination of drinking water is widespread in this country. To name just a few, have a look at these stories from towns and cities in North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, and New York.
Data compiled by the Environmental Working Group from local water utilities shows that PERC was detected in tap water samples taken by water utilities in 44 states that serve 19 million people.
One might hope and think that affected local communities could turn to the US Environmental Protection Agency for help in such situations. The sad truth is that under the Trump administration this may well not be the case. Trump has nominated Michael Dourson to lead EPA’s chemical safety office, who, despite the fact that he’s yet to be confirmed, is already working at EPA as a special advisor to Administrator Scott Pruitt. And Pruitt has already installed as a political appointee to that office Nancy Beck, who until May was a senior official at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s main trade association.
So what do Dourson and Beck have to do with PERC?
Before they arrived at EPA, they were co-authors on a 2016 paper that was funded by ACC. That paper, published in the industry’s go-to journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, asserts that the acceptable risk levels EPA has set for 19 chemicals are all too stringent and should be relaxed by anywhere from 2.5 to 150 fold.
Among these 19 chemicals is PERC. Dourson and Beck call for EPA’s standard for the chemical to be relaxed to a level that is 12.5 times less protective.
Even more alarming, PERC is one of the first 10 chemicals that EPA is examining right now under the recently reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is implemented by the same office Dourson is nominated to lead and in which both he and Beck serve as politically appointed advisors.
To summarize: As I write, Dourson and Beck are making decisions that will help determine how the risks of PERC and other chemicals are assessed and whether or not they need to be regulated. Both of them have only recently worked for the chemical industry. PERC is made by numerous companies that are members of ACC, Beck’s former employer and the funder of the Dourson-Beck paper.
Yet neither of them has recused themselves from making decisions about its risk and regulatory responses. Indeed, as I noted earlier, Beck’s ethics agreement gives her wide latitude to work on issues in which ACC has financial interests in order to ensure those interests are taken into account. And in Dourson’s nomination hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on October 4, he was repeatedly asked if he would, if confirmed, recuse himself from work on chemicals he had been paid by industry to work on, and he repeatedly refused to say he would do so.
Residents of Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, New York and any other of those 44 states where PERC is contaminating drinking water simply can’t afford to entrust their health to individuals with such clear conflicts of interest. To start, they should tell their Senators to reject Dourson’s nomination to head EPA’s toxics office, and urge them to insist that political appointees who worked for the chemical industry must fully recuse themselves from such matters.