Second of three articles
Things were not looking good a few years ago for the makers of atrazine, America's second-leading weedkiller. The company was seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to keep the highly profitable product on the market. But scientists were finding it was disrupting hormones in wildlife -- in some cases turning frogs into bizarre creatures bearing both male and female sex organs.
Last October, concerns about the herbicide led the European Union to ban atrazine, starting in 2005. Yet that same month, after 10 years of contentious scientific review, the EPA decided to permit ongoing use in the United States with no new restrictions.
Scientist Tyrone B. Hayes found that even very small amounts of atrazine had a "demasculinizing" effect on tadpoles.
(University Of California At Berkeley)
_____Assailing EPA Science_____
Timeline: Recommended study of effects on humans of weedkiller atrazine -- which is thought to scramble hormones in frogs and cause cancer in rats -- is held up by regulatory process.
Data Quality Act
_____About This Series_____About This Series
An Agency Takes a Turn
Under President Bush, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made sometimes subtle changes in regulations that carry large consequences for workers and employers. Across the government, the Bush administration has started fewer regulations and killed more of the proposals Bush inherited than two predecessors.
A Policy Puts Science on Trial
A last-minute addition to an unrelated piece of legislation has created a tool for attacking the science used by federal agencies as a basis for new regulations. Industry has embraced the Data Quality Act to challenge 32 major proposals, including a successful assault on efforts to restrict the use of the herbicide atrazine.
A Word Accelerates Mountaintop Mining
By changing the word "waste" to "fill" in a regulation covering coal mining, Bush appointees have allowed an increase in the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia.
Herbicide approvals are complicated, and there is no one reason that atrazine passed regulatory muster in this country. But close observers give significant credit to a single sentence that was added to the EPA's final scientific assessment last year.
Hormone disruption, it read, cannot be considered a "legitimate regulatory endpoint at this time" -- that is, it is not an acceptable reason to restrict a chemical's use -- because the government had not settled on an officially accepted test for measuring such disruption.
Those words, which effectively rendered moot hundreds of pages of scientific evidence, were adopted by the EPA as a result of a petition filed by a Washington consultant working with atrazine's primary manufacturer, Syngenta Crop Protection. The petition was filed under the Data Quality Act, a little-known piece of legislation that, under President Bush's Office of Management and Budget, has become a potent tool for companies seeking to beat back regulation.
The Data Quality Act -- written by an industry lobbyist and slipped into a giant appropriations bill in 2000 without congressional discussion or debate -- is just two sentences directing the OMB to ensure that all information disseminated by the federal government is reliable. But the Bush administration's interpretation of those two sentences could tip the balance in regulatory disputes that weigh the interests of consumers and businesses.
John D. Graham, administrator of the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), who has directed implementation of the Data Quality Act, said the law will keep the federal government hewing to "sound science." He said the act, which allows people and companies to challenge government information they believe is inaccurate, is equally accessible to "a wide diversity of interests, both in the business community and in the consumer, environmental and conservation communities."
But many consumers, conservationists and worker advocates say the act is inherently biased in favor of industry. By demanding that government use only data that have achieved a rare level of certainty, these critics maintain, the act dismisses scientific information that in the past would have triggered tighter regulation.
A Washington Post analysis of government records indicates that in the first 20 months since the act was fully implemented, it has been used predominantly by industry. Setting aside the many Data Quality Act petitions filed to correct narrow typographical or factual errors in government publications or Web sites, the analysis found 39 petitions with potentially broad economic, policy or regulatory impact. Of those, 32 were filed by regulated industries, business or trade organizations or their lobbyists. Seven were filed by environmental or citizen groups. Some environmental groups are boycotting the act, adding to the imbalance in its use.
Among the petitions:
The American Chemistry Council and others challenged data used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as it sought to ban wood treated with heavy metals and arsenic in playground equipment.
Logging groups challenged Forest Service calculations used to justify restrictions on timber harvests.
Sugar interests challenged the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration over dietary recommendations to limit sugar intake.
The Salt Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenged data that led the National Institutes of Health to recommend that people cut back on salt.
The Nickel Development Institute and other nickel interests challenged a government report on the hazards of that metal.
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers petitioned the CPSC to retract data that ranked the risk of lint fires in various clothes dryers.
Environmental and consumer groups say the Data Quality Act fits into a larger Bush administration agenda. In the past six months, more than 4,000 scientists, including dozens of Nobel laureates and 11 winners of the National Medal of Science, have signed statements accusing the administration of politicizing science.
The White House's heavy editing of a key global-warming report, its efforts to emphasize abstinence rather than condoms in the war against AIDS and its alleged stacking of scientific advisory committees have drawn particular ire. But many scientists and public advocates believe that far more is at stake with the Data Quality Act.
From their perspective, the act is shifting the authority over the nation's science into the politicized environment of the OMB -- a change, they say, that will favor big business.