The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's attempted firing of one of its top experts on cancer-causing substances brought new charges yesterday that the Reagan administration improperly favors industry in its regulatory policies.
The agency told Dr. Peter F. Infante two weeks ago that it was trying to force him out because he had been "insubordinate" in having deliberately misrepresented OSHA's position on the cancer-causing potential of formaldehyde, a chemical to which an estimated 750,000 industrial workers are exposed.
Flatly denying the accusation, Infante charged in a memo to the agency yesterday that he is a victim of "industry pressure" and of a "blatant attempt to stifle routine scientific discussion."
The attempted dismissal raises serious questions about whether federal scientists can "participate in scientific discourse without fear of retribution" and about "the integrity" of officials responsible for "protecting the safety and health of the American worker," he alleged.
The possibility that the case will become a problem for the White House increased Monday, when Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), one of the administration's most vocal critics on Capitol Hill, announced that his House Science investigations and oversight subcommittee had called OSHA chief Thorne G. Auchter to a Thursday hearing.
Infante learned of the planned firing June 29 in an undated letter signed by Bailus Walker, head of the Directorate of Health Standards Programs.
Infante, 40, gets $45,000 a year as head of the directorate's Office of Carcinogen Identification and Classification. He has a GS-15 rating and has held the post for three of his 6 1/2 years in the federal government.
The attempted dismissal stems from a May 12 letter that Infante wrote, on Labor Department/OSHA stationery, to Dr. John Higginson, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France.
The letter presented data intended to show that an IARC working group violated its own criteria in rating the evidence of formaldehyde's carcinogenicity in animals as "limited" rather than "sufficient." A "limited" rating means that the data were considered inadequate for an evaluation of the possible cancer risk in humans.
Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a recent Current Intelligence Bulletin, saying that formaldehyde is a carcinogen in animals. The CIB is published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health of the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a tough reply, Higginson told Infante that his letter's "content and style," along with his dissemination of copies to five cancer researchers, could be interpreted as an OSHA effort to influence and IARC unit "and to cast aspersions on the scientific integrity and objectivity of its members. . . ."
According to Walker, the letter "had the appearance of misrepresenting" OSHA's refusal to endorse, and "lack of confidence in," the position on formaldehyde's carcinogenicity taken in the CIB. Infante knew that OSHA had refused to endorse the CIB "because of a growing body of conflict and disagreement about the scientific evidence," Walker asserted.
The Infante case comes on the heels of the forced removal of Anthony Robbins, director of NIOSH. Robbins was fired by HHS Secretary Richard Schweiker a few days after Washington Watch, the monthly regulatory publication of the Chamber of Commerce, published an article attacking Robbins as a social activist with "a radical, anti-business" posture. Schweiker said the firing was in "the public interest."
The CIB and Infante have been under attack by the Formaldehyde Institute, a trade association that has accused Infante of improper conduct and, in turn, has been accused by him of prompting the effort to fire him.
In a June 2 letter to OSHA, for example, institute lawyer S. John Byington, former chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, protested the lack of control "of members of the bureaucracy" who seem to be operating freely within and without government. . . ."
Infante's counsel, David C. Vladeck and Alan B. Morrision of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, said in a memo to Walker that:
The IARC "solicits" the sort of scientific comments Infante made.
The misrepresentation charge is unfounded, because Infante's letter in no way suggests that OSHA endorsed the CIB and, in fact, emphasizes that HHS, not the Labor Department, had issued it.
Words such as "OSHA," the "agency," and Infante's official title "never appear in the text" of his letter; instead, he assessed the situation as an individual scientist, with phrasing such as "I feel" and "I would hope." Using an official letterhead is "typical practice."
Infante never was told that OSHA "lacks confidence in the data on which the CIB is based," and that no Labor Department scientist, including Walker, "had ever questioned the validity of the data in the CIB."
The researchers to whom Infante sent copies are all federal employes who were fully informed of the issues, were at no risk of being "misled," and knew or should have known the he had no regulatory responsibilities.
The lawyers asked that the department dismiss the charges and that Infante be "fully exonerated." Walker's letter to Infante said that a "final decision" awaited his reply and "full consideration" by Auchter, an assistant secretary of Labor. A decision to fire Infante would be open to administrative and court challenges.