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No CHEERS for the EPA

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Issue: 24 Section: Health Geography: USA Topics: corporate

December 19, 2004

No CHEERS for the EPA

Study halted over ethical controversy

by Andrea Smith

Promotional material indicating items that CHEERS participants will receive. source: EPA

On November 11, 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was temporarily suspending the Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) after public outcry to news that the study had accepted $2.1 million from the American Chemistry Council.

CHEERS aims to provide researchers with knowledge about how children ingest, inhale, or absorb pesticides, phthalates, brominaed flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals. Sixty children under 13 months of age will be monitored for two years, and their families will be asked to keep records of their pesticide and household product use. As little is known about how and to what extent children come into contact with these chemicals, researchers see this knowledge as useful for characterizing children's exposure in risk assessments.[1]

In October, the EPA accepted $2.1 million towards the study from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical industry lobby group whose members include Dow, Exxon, and Monsanto. According to an EPA news release, "public-private partnership is essential to finding solutions to today's complex environmental issues."[2] Yet this public-private partnership is one which has granted the ACC "considerable leverage" in the study, as well as special advance access to study results that the public and independent scientists will not have.[3]. CHEERS critics such as the Environmental Working Group and the Organic Consumers Association see this as a guarantee that the results will be biased in favour of industry.

Kenneth Cook of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote in a letter to Michael Leavitt that the EWG "strongly supports greater study of children's exposure to chemicals, but not through a 'partnership' between polluters and the government that grants the regulated industry access to, and power over critical aspects of study design, study methods, data collection, data review and analysis, and data interpretation.[4]" Such research should be completely independent of industry funding to ensure the accuracy of the results.

Evidence of the toxicity of many of the chemicals being researched exists. For example, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are used as flame retardants on electrical equipment, fabrics and carpets have been shown to bioaccumulate in animal and human tissue. Studies have also shown that PBDEs can disrupt thyroid hormone balance and interferes with brain development. In fact, concern about PBDEs is so great that the State of California has nominated PBDEs to the National Toxicology Program for assessment of their carcinogenicity and neurotoxicity.[5]

"We aren't criticizing these companies for not doing studies, we criticize them for ignoring and/or burying the mountains of already existing research that clearly indicate many of their products are dangerous"
--Organic Consumers' Association
"We aren't criticizing these companies for NOT doing studies, we criticize them for ignoring and/or burying the mountains of already existing research that clearly indicate many of their products are dangerous" states the Organic Consumers Association. "We also criticize them for being responsible for some of the most vile environmental crimes this planet has ever seen. Exxon still hasn't paid a dime to clean up the Valdez oil spill. Dow continues to claim that Agent Orange is safe and had no negative impacts on U.S. soldiers or the Vietnamese."[6]

The ethics of recruiting of low-income families is also cited as a concern. Each family who completes the study will receive $970, a free video camera, a T-shirt, calendars, and a framed certificate of appreciation. Critics are concerned that low-income applicants may increase their toxic chemical use in order to be eligible for the study and rewards. While the study does not require participants increase their chemical use, it does require that chosen applicants demonstrate that they regularly use the toxic chemicals under investigation in and around their home.

Although the EPA cites that the study has already been approved by several institutional review boards, this approval was gained prior to study's receipt of ACC funds. Thus the EPA is 'taking the extraordinary step – of sending the study design for another external, independent review'[7] which will likely be completed by spring 2005.

[1] US EPA, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development. Fact Sheet: A Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study. November 8, 2004. http://www.epa.gov/cheers/images/fact_sheet.pdf.

[2] US EPA. Office of Research and Development. News Release: EPA Partners with American Chemistry Council to Study Young Children's Exposure to Household Chemicals. October 12, 2004. http://www.epa.gov/cheers/images/news_release_101204.pdf.

[3] American Chemistry Council. Long-Range Research Initiative, Newsletter. Fall 2004. http://www.uslri.org/news.cfm?id=newsletters.

[4] Cook, K. Letter to the EPA. Environmental Working Group. Washington, DC http://www.ewg.org/issues/humantesting/20041029/letter_20041015.php

[5] US Department of Health and Human Services. National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens. 10th ed. Carcinogen Profiles. 2002.

[6] Organic Consumer Association. EPA & Chemical Industry To Study Effects Of Known Toxic Chemicals On Children: Question & Answers. http://www.organicconsumers.org/epa-alert.htm.

[7] Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science, Office of Research and Development, US EPA. "Memorandum: Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study." November 8, 2004.


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